Consumer Choice and Innovation Project
Protecting innovation, expanding consumer choice


The Latest in Tech

Washington Post: Alibaba’s Jack Ma Supports Internet Data Use in Fighting Crime

BEIJING—China’s e-commerce titan, Jack Ma, has a message for would-be lawbreakers: Big data is watching you.

In a speech Friday to 1.5 million political and legal officials, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s co-founder and executive chairman urged them to embrace internet data in their fight against thieves and terrorists, according to verified social media posts on the Chinese Communist Party’s Political and Legal Affairs Committee’s publisher’s account.

“It’s normal for one person to buy a high-pressure cooker, a timer or even some gunpowder and steel ball bearings [separately], but it wouldn’t be normal if one person bought all that stuff together at once,” Mr. Ma said in the video-conference speech, explaining how big data could help tip off authorities to potential bomb makers.

In another example, Mr. Ma suggested big data could help streamline police duties, such as tracking a person who takes many bus trips in one day using electronic payment, which could alert police to a suspect pickpocket.

Mr. Ma’s comments mark a rare departure for China’s internet entrepreneurs, who often shy away from discussing, much less advising, the country’s legal and public security watchdogs on how to do their jobs. The speech raised the idea that China’s homegrown tech companies, including his own, could become part of the crime-fighting system by sharing data on its users—a move that raises questions as to what boundaries Alibaba and others may uphold if the government comes knocking for information.

Alibaba has said it doesn’t share user data with third parties while also acknowledging it abides by Chinese law—which could require it to hand over data for, say, a criminal investigation.

“We believe harnessing big data analytics in applications like crime prevention and detection is an example of how data technology can play a part to protect the people and drive the society’s efficiency,” an Alibaba spokeswoman said Monday.

Similar questions have been raised about the role China’s internet titans will play in a “social credit” system being built by the government. That system seeks to use big data to track the behavior of citizens and organizations, with punishments doled out to those deemed to be acting in untrustworthy ways.

After Mr. Ma’s speech, Meng Jianzhu, China’s top legal affairs official, urged political and legal units at all levels to make good use of the data resources from society and corporations through cooperation, including conducting developing and research together.

“Big internet companies should well play their important roles in social management,” Mr. Meng said.