Alibaba Group has matured from a small idea to a marketplace that ranks among the ten most valuable companies in the world. Today, Alibaba is more successful than Ebay and Amazon put together. Its primary market is in the world’s most populous country, with maybe the world’s biggest appetite for surveilling its citizens. One day, Alibaba may not be revered as a marketing miracle but instead reviled by privacy advocates worldwide.
A recent article detailing Alibaba and Tencent’s cooperation in government snooping raises the question of whether it’s growth may have been nurtured by the Chinese government, so that Beijing could co-opt and exploit its data. According to the article, these firms may have another job other than e-commerce. It purports that Tencent and Alibaba are among the firms that assist authorities in hunting down criminal suspects, silencing dissent and creating surveillance cities.
This revelation, wherein the government teams with huge companies’ technological data, is helping China become the world’s largest digital surveillance state. At the heart of its quest for surveillance superiority are the country’s biggest technology companies. These are apparently willingly operating as the government’s eyes and ears in cyberspace. This is wider in scope than had previously been reported. It was widely known that companies would give the government access to financial data used for scoring credit risk. This goes way beyond that.
Today, Alibaba employees routinely report suspected crimes to the police. They, in turn, use the massive data goldmine that the tech giant collects through its e-commerce and financial-payment network for all manner of investigations into Chinese citizens. These citizens – Alibaba customers – may be wholly unaware that their lives have been profiled. This collaboration with companies like Alibaba is only one weapon in the government’s surveillance arsenal. It also utilizes other high tech means to keep the citizenry in check, such as ubiquitous cameras featuring facial recognition software.
East Vs. West
Unlike its western counterparts, which grudgingly and occasionally cooperate with government requests for data, Chinese firms openly share theirs with the regime so that the government can track down criminals and silence dissent. It’s not like they have a choice in the matter, as there is no mechanism for challenging this in court, like there is in the US. However, the Chinese companies don’t seem to have any appetite to fight the government’s intrusion.
In fact, the opposite is true. Tencent Chief Executive Ma Huateng and Alibaba founder Jack Ma have both expressed support for private companies working with the government on law enforcement and security issues. Why? Well, for one, they’ve benefitted hugely from the government’s trade policies, which give them a big advantage and skew the marketplace in their favor. Who would object to that?
The Power of Tencent
On the subject of silencing dissent, it is Tencent that offers the Chinese government the most value. As the world’s largest online video-game company, it dominates Chinese cyberspace with news and video-streaming operations. Nearly a billion people use its WeChat app to communicate and for mobile payments. It goes without saying that the smartphone is essential to its success. By sharing data with the government, Tencent has in effect given the regime a billion hand-held spies.
Tencent’s online monitoring operations, for example, are used to filter streams for any objectionable political content or comments. Additionally, censors at Chinese companies are responsible for blocking unfavorable references to the Communist Party and senior leaders, as well as foreign news stories casting China in a negative light. Computers can spot “offensive” words and phrases and delete most of that content. WeChat users have experienced automated warning messages alerting them that they may have been discussing sensitive political topics.
Even scarier is that China is prodding companies for access to cloud information – access to data from surveillance cameras, smartphones, government databases and other sources. Its aim is to create so-called smart cities and safe cities. In reality, these terms are merely euphemisms for surveillance cities, in which nothing goes on that Big Brother doesn’t know about. Consider the notion of “seeding” the cloud with early warning alert systems based on crowd size and movement as an eventuality.
These so-called smart cities, or surveillance cities if you prefer, will be commonplace given the complicity and cooperation of private companies like Alibaba and Tencent with the government. In the works are more than 100 such locales in the next year alone. Beijing has China’s major companies in its pocket.
Opinions are the writer’s own.