On May 1, 2019 a media enquiry from the Financial Times raised concerns about UTS’s relationship with China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) based on a (then-embargoed) Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled “China’s Algorithms of Repression – Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App”.
As a consequence of the issues raised in the HRW report, a detailed review of UTS’s relationship with CETC has been undertaken considering previous risk assessments, contract terms, adherence to policies and the nature of the work performed for all projects.
Prior to formally establishing the partnership with CETC in April 2015, UTS undertook due diligence taking into consideration research alignment and benefits to both organisations, CETC’s existing strong relationship with CSIRO, Australian government policy that was highly supportive of international research collaborations, reputational risks and Defence Trade Controls legislation. A robust contract was negotiated and additional management controls were put in place.
Through the collaboration with CETC, academics from the Faculty of Engineering and IT have engaged in five research projects – Projects 1, 2 and 4 are related to high speed wireless technology, Project 3 relates to public security video analysis and Project 5 relates to localisation and mapping algorithms for indoor robots. All projects are foundational research and have contributed to the creation of new knowledge which has been disseminated through high-quality academic publications. Projects have been submitted for approval to the Department of Defence where required under the Australian Defence Trade Controls Act 2012.
Projects 1, 2, 4 and 5 are not controversial. Project 3 potentially raised a number of issues in light of concerns identified in the HRW report which identified a subsidiary of CETC as the supplier of the surveillance system.
While Project 3 is focussed on public security video analysis for identifying dangerous goods, terrorists and emergency events, it is primarily computer science research into algorithms for the analysis of video data. Furthermore, Project 3 was signed and commenced in March 2018 and the analysis undertaken of the surveillance system by HRW identifies that this system was in place prior to February 2018. It is clear that no research output from Project 3 could have contributed to or influenced the existing surveillance system in Xinjiang. Furthermore, CETC have confirmed that all of the research they have been collaborating with UTS on is fundamental research and that none of the research output has been used in any products or application.
The due diligence and risk assessment associated with Project 3 did identify areas of risk to be managed, however these were not specifically related to the issues subsequently identified in the HRW report.
It should also be noted that the global geopolitical environment has shifted substantially in the last five years and particularly in the last 18 months. In 2014 when discussions were underway with CETC about establishing a formal relationship, the Australian government was actively supporting the establishment of research and commercial collaborations with China. Today, we are clearly in a very different environment, with tensions between the US and China rising around trade cyberwarfare, industrial espionage and hegemonic rivalry in the Pacific. It is clearly important to consider this changing environment over the course of a long-term partnership with any international organisation.
A further challenge that has become evident while undertaking this collaborative relationship, is the opaqueness of CETC in relation to its ownership, structure and governance.
It is clear that UTS approached the relationship with CETC with rigour and diligence carefully assessing the opportunity and projects from a strategic, commercial, reputational and technical basis. Relevant documentation has been maintained and UTS academics have complied with all required internal policies and controls and external regulations. Furthermore, a risk management framework has been implemented and continually strengthened over the last five years to help assess, manage and mitigate risks associated with international collaborative research partnerships.
This review makes a number of general recommendations to continue to improve UTS’s existing robust processes and risk management practices:
- Continue to regularly audit and improve the robustness of a number of our processes, documentation and research contract management practices.
- Undertake more detailed analysis and documentation of subsidiaries of organisations involved in collaborative research.
- Regularly re-evaluate risks associated with organisations where the relationship exists over multiple years and/or where the external context has changed.
- Increase the level of scrutiny where partner risk is determined to be medium or higher, or where concerns exist around the potential application of the research.
- Apply the current risk management framework to re-test existing research in priority areas.
- Include clear language in our opportunity assessment risk framework identifying the potential impact and applications of the proposed research to assist with evaluation of that research in the context of responsible use of technology (as articulated in the UTS 2027 Strategy).
- As part of UTS’s 2027 strategy and focus on the responsible use of technology, undertake further analysis of these partnerships to provide useful operational insights.
It should be noted that the Research Office has continued to refine and improve the UTS risk management framework and in the last six months has introduced additional measures which already address many of these recommendations.
With respect to the existing relationship and projects with CETC, this review recommends:
- Agreeing with CETC to cease work on Project 3 given the nature of the work and current concerns about potential future use.
- Finalising Project 2 and Project 5 by the end of August and September respectively.
- Communicating with CETC concerns about practical completion of Project 1 and Project 4 given the delays in Defence Export Controls assessment and agree to an early conclusion to these projects.