A star University of Maryland (UMD) professor built a machine-learning software “useful for surveillance” as part of a six-figure research grant from Chinese tech giant Alibaba, raising concerns that an American public university directly contributed to China’s surveillance state.
Alibaba provided $125,000 in funding to a research team led by Dinesh Manocha, a professor of computer science at UMD College Park, to develop an urban surveillance software that can “classify the personality of each pedestrian and identify other biometric features,” according to research grant documents obtained via public records request.
“These capabilities will be used to predict the behavior of each pedestrian and are useful for surveillance,” the document read.
Alibaba’s surveillance products gained notoriety in 2020, when researchers found that one of its products, Cloud Shield, could recognize and classify the faces of Uyghur people. Human rights group believe these high-tech surveillance tools play a major role in the ongoing Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang.
“The bottom line is that Alibaba financed U.S. academic research that was tailor-made for China’s surveillance state,” Ryan Fedasiuk, an associate fellow at the Center for New American Security, said in an email to The Daily Beast.
Manocha is a decorated scholar in the AI and robotics field who has earned awards and accolades from Google, IBM, and many others. His star status brings rewards: Maryland taxpayers paid $355,000 in salaries to the professor in 2021, according to government watchdog Open the Books. The U.S. military also provides lavish funding for the professor’s research, signing a $68 million agreement with Manocha’s lab to research military applications of AI technologies.
But Maryland taxpayers and the U.S. military are not the only ones funding Manocha’s research. In January 2018, the University of Maryland and Alibaba signed an 18-month research contract funding Manocha’s research team.
In the grant document obtained by The Daily Beast, Manocha’s team pledged to “work closely with Alibaba researchers” to develop an urban surveillance software that can identify pedestrians based on their unique gait signatures. The algorithm would then use the gait signatures to classify pedestrians as “aggressive,” “shy,” “impulsive,” and other personalities.
The grant required UMD researchers to test the algorithm on videos provided by Alibaba and present their findings in person at Alibaba labs in China. The scholars also had to provide the C++ codebase for the software and the raw dataset as deliverables to Alibaba.
The software’s “clear implication is to proactively predict demonstrations and protests so that they might be quelled,” Fedasiuk told The Daily Beast. “Given what we know now about China’s architecture of repression in Xinjiang and other regions, it is clear Dr. Manocha should not have pitched this project, and administrators at UMD should not have signed off on it.”
“[Manocha’s case] is yet another wakeup call.”
UMD declined to comment on this story. Manocha did not reply to multiple requests for comments.
It’s not just Alibaba that was interested in the professor’s expertise. In January 2019—back when the Alibaba grant was still active—Manocha secured a taxpayer-funded, $321,000 Defense Department grant for his research team.
The two grants funded very similar research projects. The Alibaba award was titled “large-scale behavioral learning for dense crowds.” Meanwhile, the DoD grant funded research into “efficient computational models for simulating large-scale heterogeneous crowds.”
Unsurprisingly, the research outputs produced by the two grants had significant overlap. Between 2019 and 2021, Manocha published multiple articles in the AI and machine-learning field that cited both the Alibaba and DoD grant.
There is no evidence that Manocha broke the law by double-dipping from U.S. and Chinese funding sources to fund similar research projects. Nevertheless, the case still raises “serious questions about ethics in machine learning research,” Fedasiuk said.
Many in the U.S. government share Fedasiuk’s concerns. In recent years, U.S. policymakers have pushed to discourage scientists from seeking foreign funders.
A 2021 White House memorandum—written under the Trump administration and endorsed by the Biden White House—sought to counter Chinese interference in U.S. academia by requiring U.S. taxpayer-funded researchers to “fully disclose information that can reveal potential conflicts of interest.” Meanwhile in Congress, Rep. Mike Waltz introduced legislation that banned U.S. researchers from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs.
The congressman said Manocha’s case is “yet another wakeup call” and “precisely why” he introduced the legislation.
Manocha’s ties to China extend beyond his work with Alibaba. Between 2014 and 2016, the professor worked as a Thousand Talents Scholar, a Chinese program considered a national security threat by the U.S. government. In 2018, Baidu, another Chinese tech giant, brought on Manocha as a senior consultant for its research arm.
The professor has continued to work with Chinese counterparts even after the Alibaba grant expired in June 2019, co-writing a paper with Chinese academics affiliated with the Chinese military-industrial complex in 2020.
Jessica Brandt, a policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Beast that Manocha’s case should be a cautionary tale for other U.S. researchers.
“I think this case highlights how consequential researchers’ choices about collaboration can be and how important it is that the academic community develop codes of conduct to guide those choices,” she said.