Alibaba’s Jack Ma Urges China to Use Data to Combat Crime

  • Speech was televised to about 1.5 million officials nationwide
  • Make full use of big data to solve cases, security czar says

Jack Ma.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma proposed that the nation’s top security bureau use big data to prevent crime, endorsing the country’s nascent effort to build unparalleled online surveillance of its billion-plus people.

QuickTake Jack Ma

China’s data capabilities are virtually unrivaled among its global peers, and policing cannot happen without the ability to analyze information on its citizens, the co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. said in a speech published Saturday by the agency that polices crime and runs the courts.

Ma’s stance resonates with that of China’s ruling body, which is establishing a system to collect and parse information on citizens in a country where minimal safeguards exist for privacy. The capabilities Ma described also highlight the role that leading technology companies -- including Alibaba -- could play in helping build a system not unlike that of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” in which an all-knowing state can stop crimes before they take place.

“Bad guys in a movie are identifiable at first glance, but how can the ones in real life be found?” Ma said in his speech, which was posted on the official WeChat account of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs. “In the age of big data, we need to remember that our legal and security system with millions of members will also face change.”

China’s effort to flush out threats to stability is expanding into the realm of high technology. For instance, the Communist Party has directed one of the country’s largest defense contractors, China Electronics Technology Group, to develop software that collects consumption habits and behaviors of citizens to predict terrorist acts. A draft cybersecurity law unveiled in July last year grants the government near-unbridled access to user data in the name of national security. New anti-terror laws that went into effect on Jan. 1 allow authorities to gain access to bank accounts, telecommunications, and a national network of surveillance cameras called Skynet.

“I imagine Jack Ma sees benefits not only in staying in the government’s good graces by actively monitoring citizens though data mining, but also undoubtedly a business opportunity,” said Jason Ng, a New York-based researcher with Citizen Lab, which has conducted studies exposing weak information security among Chinese companies.

“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.”

In his speech, Ma stuck mainly to the issue of crime prevention. In Alibaba’s hometown of Hangzhou alone, the number of surveillance cameras may already surpass that of New York’s, Ma said. Humans can’t handle the sheer amount of data amassed, which is where artificial intelligence comes in, he added.

“The future legal and security system cannot be separated from the internet and big data,” Ma said.

Ma’s speech was televised to about 1.5 million legal and domestic security officials across the country, including Meng Jianzhu, the nation’s top security czar, according to the WeChat post.

“Everything is possible in the era of big data,” Meng said after Ma’s speech, according to a statement on the commission’s website. Legal and domestic security officials should “broaden the vision” and “adapt to modern scientific measures” to make full use of big data when solving cases, he said.

Ma’s speech also highlights the delicate relationship between Chinese web companies and the government. The ruling party has designated internet industry leaders as key targets for outreach, with President Xi Jinping saying in May last year that technology leaders should “demonstrate positive energy in purifying cyberspace.”

Ma has said his policy for dealing with the government is to fall in love but not marry. His company has courted state clients, including the provincial governments of Zhejiang and Guizhou, for its cloud services. Guizhou province stores and shares data about transport, tourism and the environment on Alibaba’s cloud platform. Other companies including search engine Baidu Inc., Tencent Holdings Ltd., owner of WeChat, cooperate with official requests for information, according to a report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

— With assistance by Yinan Zhao, and Lulu Chen

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