Bureaucracy and favouritism drive China's security procurement, researchers say

Academics complain the selection process for new technology in the security sector ignores quality in favour of connections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 9:41am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 2:46am

Mainland security agencies often ignore the latest surveillance and internet monitoring technology developed by the nation’s own scientists because of excessive bureaucracy and favouritism when picking which systems to use, according to researchers involved in the selection process.

Professor He Yeping, deputy director at the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Engineering Research Centre of Fundamental Software, said some of the best technology developed by scientists in the mainland was sitting on shelves gathering dust. “Those selected and used by the government are often not the most technologically advanced,” he said.

More than two million people are paid to monitor the internet on the mainland, the Beijing News reported in October. The Communist Party issued a statement last month stressing the importance of guiding public opinion online and cracking down on “internet crimes”.

Professor He’s team has developed computer operating systems for security-sensitive bases on the mainland and is researching numerous other projects including ways to monitor data sent with Microsoft software for information on potential national security threats.

“I am not blaming any officials. There are simply too many institutional barriers between us that make the transition of technology from the laboratory to the field very difficult,” He said. Government departments were often more worried about after-service than the quality of the technology they acquired, he said.

“They can give you a call at midnight and ask you to take the earliest plane to solve a small problem. They expect an immediate response,” He said.

“Most scientists can’t deal with this kind of stress. They need to teach and they have papers to write. They don’t have anyone or organisations to deal with these issues for them.”

The best technology was often invented by researchers who were least able to deal with government bureaucracy, he said.

The government had encouraged researchers with good technology skills to leave campus and set up companies to better serve their customers, but there was no guarantee they could return to their government institute or university if the business venture failed, he said.

If successful, their university or institute would try to intervene to get a share of the profits as the technology was developed with government funding, he said.

Professor Ding Xiaoqing, a digital language surveillance expert at Tsinghua University, said she also had problems when dealing with government departments.

Ding’s team has developed a surveillance system that can search for sensitive information in more than a dozen languages and translate it into Chinese. It also searches for text embedded in image files as more people pass sensitive information online through pictures to dodge traditional surveillance systems, which only deal with text or voice.

The technology did well and pleased customers overseas, but some Chinese officials were not impressed, she said.

“They only use products from people with connections. They don’t care whether your technology is the best or not,” she said.

Professor Xu Qing, a digital camera surveillance expert at Tianjin University, said his team had government funding to produce a system that could alert the authorities to street protests or terrorist attacks.

The system accesses a massive surveillance camera network and automatically analyses patterns of human movement to look for signs of disturbances.

“It’s fast, it’s accurate and it never gets tired,” he said. “We’ve done an impressive job and the system is ready for deployment in field, where such technology rarely exists. I just need a user.”