SHANGHAI -- A new smartphone developed jointly by China’s police ministry and Internet giant Alibaba will allow officers to play games and shop online, as well as deploy a safe mode designed to combat data theft and foreign spying, according to Chinese media reports.

The handset has been developed over the last 18 months by the Number One Research Institute of China’s Ministry of Public Security and technicians from Hangzhou-based Alibaba, the world’s largest e-commerce provider, Chinese news website Pengpai reported

Pengpai quoted a researcher at the institute, Lu Yu, as telling the ministry’s magazine, People’s Public Security, that the phone is being manufactured in conjunction with "top domestic mobile producers." Its ‘PMOS’ operating system is based on the YunOS operating system, previously developed by Alibaba, with added security features, he explained.

Lu said the new device would remove risks to information security caused by officers using their phones for both personal and work use. He said China had previously not had a secure phone suitable for police work, although ordinary smartphones could not satisfy the special needs of police staff, whose “work and life were closely intertwined," and who often needed to deal with “sudden incidents” out of office hours.

The phone features two “completely separate” modes, Pengpai reported. Its “personal mode” will allow officers to make calls, play games and make online purchases, using “varied and lively” software approved by the authorities. But it also has a “secure mode," which features user recognition technology, and encryption of calls and data. Lu said this technology would block malware and viruses, and prevent professional information from being revealed -- something he described as an "urgent priority."

Mobile users faced threats both from commercial companies trying to mine their information, Lu added, and from what he described as “more serious politically motivated security threats from abroad." He noted that, “as Edward Snowden revealed… the US government bugs calls and mines data from targeted users.” Lu emphasized that every aspect of the new phone was based on Chinese technology, and said this would “effectively avoid the problems of foreign operating systems, such as backdoors or leaks.”

The Chinese government has become increasingly concerned about foreign espionage in recent months, and has urged citizens to be vigilant on several occasions. It has also denied that its proposed new anti-terrorism law would grant Chinese authorities access to information stored by all network operators (including foreign companies) working in China. 

For Alibaba, the deal comes as it seeks to promote its YunOS operating system in China. The company, which is cash rich from its New York IPO last autumn, recently spent $590 million on acquiring a stake in Chinese smartphone maker Meizu. Its handsets will be offered to users by state-run provider China Telecom -- and the brand is also targeting rural customers with cheap “Taobao shopping” handsets priced at around between $50 to $100.

It has also been reported that Alibaba has been keen to get access to China’s police database, in order to link photographic identity data to users' accounts on its online payment system Alipay. 

However, some online commenters raised questions about the design of the new smartphone, and the cost of developing it; one asked why police staff needed to do their shopping on their work phones. Another user, however, said that police were just like other people, and needed to find ways to combat boredom -- while others backed the police's view that in the modern world, information security was vital.