(Wall Street Journal) – HANGZHOU, China—Alibaba Group’s sprawling campus has collegial workspaces, laid-back coffee bars and, on the landscaped grounds, a police outpost.
Employees use the office to report suspected crimes to the police, according to people familiar with the operation. Police also use it to request data from Alibaba for their own investigations, these people said, tapping into the trove of information the tech giant collects through its e-commerce and financial-payment networks.
In one case, the police wanted to find out who had posted content related to terrorism, said a former Alibaba employee. “They came to me and asked me for the user ID and information,” he recalled. He turned it over.
The Chinese government is building one of the world’s most sophisticated, high-tech systems to keep watch over its citizens, including surveillance cameras, facial-recognition technology and vast computers systems that comb through terabytes of data. Central to its efforts are the country’s biggest technology companies, which are openly acting as the government’s eyes and ears in cyberspace.
Companies including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , Tencent HoldingsLtd. and Baidu Inc., are required to help China’s government hunt down criminal suspects and silence political dissent. Their technology is also being used to create cities wired for surveillance.
This assistance is far more extensive than the help Western companies extend to their governments, and the requests are almost impossible to challenge, a Wall Street Journal examination of Chinese practices shows.
Unlike American companies, which often resist U.S. government requests for information, Chinese ones talk openly about working with authorities. Tencent Chief Executive Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma both have voiced support for private companies working with the government on law enforcement and security issues.
“The political and legal system of the future is inseparable from the internet, inseparable from big data,” Alibaba’s Mr. Ma told a Communist Party commission overseeing law enforcement last year. He said technology will soon make it possible to predict security threats. “Bad guys won’t even be able to walk into the square,” he said.
In practice, China’s internet giants, which have benefited from trade policies shielding them from foreign competition, have little choice but to cooperate in a country where the Communist Party controls both the legal system and the right to function as a business.
Tencent, the world’s largest online videogame company, dominates Chinese cyberspace with news, video-streaming operations and its WeChat app, used by nearly one billion people to communicate and for mobile payments.
Beijing activist Hu Jia said he bought a slingshot online after a friend recommended it for relieving stress. He paid with WeChat’s mobile-payment feature. Mr. Hu said he was later interrogated by a state security agent, who asked if he was planning to shoot out surveillance cameras near his apartment.
A few years earlier, Mr. Hu said, he had messaged a friend headed to Taiwan with the names of activists he might want to see while traveling there. Later, he said, state security agents showed up at the friend’s house and warned him against meeting Mr. Hu’s acquaintances.
“Experience has proven that WeChat is completely compromised,” especially for people on the government’s watch list, Mr. Hu said. “Everyone has a spy watching them. That spy is their smartphone.”
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