Eight months after Apple CEO Tim Cook staged a very public spat with U.S. law officials over accessing users’ private data, Alibaba executive chairman Jack Ma is moving in the opposite direction. Sort through our country’s data, he told Chinese law officials last Friday, it can help pinpoint terrorist activity.
Ma, a skilled pitchman, spoke via video conference to a commission overseeing law enforcement and 1.5 million Chinese police officers about the potential of harnessing data to fight crime. “In the past, the policemen followed pickpockets all day long. From now on, if he uses e-payment, the police will notice that this guy has been on 50 different buses in a single day—therefore he might be very suspicious,” Ma said.
The example wasn’t just a coincidence: Alibaba’s mobile Alipay system is the most popular in China and, in Alibaba’s hometown of Hangzhou, it can be used on the bus.
Ma offered another example, one that could include Alibaba’s main business of e-commerce. “It’s normal when one person buys a pressure cooker, or a clock, or steel balls or even gunpowder. But if one person buys all these things at the same time, it is peculiar. Without big data, how do you know he is making a bomb?” he asked the audience.
Ma’s comments received some scrutiny among outside observers. “Without some level of transparency and oversight and clear boundaries, I worry deeply for citizens’ rights and the ability for this technology to be abused as simply another method to identify and monitor Chinese individuals who dare to not agree with authority figures,” Jason Ng, a researcher at Citizen Lab told Bloomberg.
Ma didn’t directly mention Alibaba’s data being used, and he was answering an invitation to talk to China’s security officials. But Ma came close to encouraging Chinese police to search his company’s data.
For one thing, Alibaba (BABA) is now very publicly on the side of social stability—a government goal that traces back millennia in China. If rival Amazon China is giving police the same suggestions as Ma, it isn’t doing so loudly.
Second, Alibaba can pitch its cloud computing technology to help officials sort through data sets like Ma proposes. A private tech company proposing this is not unique to China. In the U.S., Amazon (AMZN) built the C.I.A.’s cloud system as part of a $600 million contract.
An Alibaba spokeswoman supports this idea. “We believe harnessing big data analytics in applications like crime prevention and detection is an example of how data technology can play a part to protect the people and drive the society’s efficiency,” she says.
Chinese users are unlikely to complain about the potential for Ma’s comments to promote increased surveillance, because civil liberties and privacy aren’t widely expected in the country.
Social media is censored, accounts criticizing the government are often removed, and the court system is opaque. In the beginning of the year, a new law began to require telecom and Internet companies to assist law enforcements in probes averting and investigating terrorism, including decrypting information. European and U.S. officials objected to some of the law’s more onerous clauses that were eventually removed, but they were still unhappy with the broadness of the final law.
But the law reflects the Chinese government’s expectations of its large tech companies. The government believes, after all, that it is one major reason for their triumphs. An official at Internet regulator Ministry of Industry and Information Technology named Wen Ku said several years ago that China’s Internet companies owe their success to a “good policy environment” created by the Chinese government.
So it’s little surprise that Ma talks candidly about helping law enforcement in ways that may make Silicon Valley cringe. China is different. So are its tech companies.