Machine translation is at the center of a geopolitically sensitive report on China’s efforts to use consumer technology to collect user data. The report, which gained widespread attention, has been covered by the likes of ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian, among many others since it was published in early October 2019.
The Guardian highlighted the potential security risks of Chinese smartphones in an interview with the report’s author, Samantha Hoffman. Hoffman is an analyst with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think tank funded partly by Australia’s Department of Defense. Hoffman’s recent work involves such issues as the international presence of Chinese technology companies and the impact of China’s intelligence laws on Huawei.
Her October 2019 report, “Engineering global consent: The Chinese Communist Party’s data-driven power expansion,” makes some potentially explosive claims about how China uses state-owned companies, which provide machine translation services, to collect data on users outside China.
Using a company called Global Tone Communications Technology Co. Ltd (GTCOM) as a case study, Hoffman argued that the most valuable tools in China’s data-collection campaign are technologies that users engage with for their own benefit; machine translation services being a prime example.
GTCOM, which Hoffman said describes itself as a “cross-language big data” business, offers hardware and software translation tools that collect data — lots of data.
Hoffman estimated that GTCOM, which works with both corporate and government clients, handles the equivalent of up to five trillion words of plain text per day, across 65 languages and in over 200 countries.
To collect as much data as possible, Hoffman wrote, GTCOM works not only with major Chinese firms like Huawei, Alibaba Cloud, and Haiyun Data, but also with a range of academics and research institutions located around the world.
An example of GTCOM’s plans for strategic cooperation is its translation service, which Hoffman said has been embedded in Alibaba’s machine translation for Alibaba Cloud since December 2016.
Similarly, Hoffman noted that GTCOM’s YeeCloud, a translation tool specializing in documents like CVs and certificates, is already used by Chinese software company Kingsoft’s iCIBA translator, and allegedly by other large Chinese companies.
According to Hoffman, because GTCOM is a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned enterprise that the Central Propaganda Department directly supervises, it would not be surprising to learn that GTCOM collects bulk data wherever its translation services are embedded, possibly without a user’s knowledge.
Hoffman closed her paper with five policy recommendations, which come as China’s interest and investment in machine translation, from both the government and the private sector, continue to grow.