Human Rights Watch has released its 2021 annual report of global human rights abuses in 2020. In his keynote article, Executive Director Kenneth Roth said “this has been the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.”
The report outlines several ways that the Chinese Communist Party has repressed Chinese citizens. Among those are the Uyghurs, an ethnically Turkish majority Muslim people living in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China. The CCP continues to use every means, including massive technological surveillance, to control the Uyghur population.
This is the second year that China has been one of the biggest offenders of human rights. Last year’s keynote article pointed out that many countries engage in human rights abuses, but “more than any other government, Beijing has made technology central to its repression.” Documents leaked to the New York Times, and to the Associated Press, as well as intel from Japan and satellite data reveal the CCP’s strategy to subdue and repress minorities in Xinjiang in its “Strike Hard” campaign. The mounting evidence has prompted both the former and the current U.S. Secretaries of State to accuse the Chinese government of engaging in genocide. (Note: The information is being reviewed by the U.S. State Department to ensure the accusation stands.)
Recently, leaked data, reported in The Intercept, show how the police in the Urumqi Xiheba Precinct use technology to track every move of Uyghur people to the point that some have said that it seems as if even their thoughts are being surveilled.
The Intercept has made available the files from a police database that they have verified as legitimate police data. The files show the arbitrary and sometimes trite criteria authorities use to check, surveil, and arrest Uyghurs. Notably, the files also show that the “Physicals for All” program, hailed by Chinese government as a health initiative, is really an effort to collect biometric data, including facial recognition and DNA samples, on Uyghurs. The database seems to be intended for Uyghurs. A special marker is associated with a Uyghur’s file, iXvWZREN. There is no analogous marker for Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in China:
The surveillance in Xinjiang was known to be extensive, creating one of the most watched regions in the world. What the database reveals is how this spying machine is used: what surveillance looks like on the ground (unrelenting) and what specific ends it is intended to serve (often to curb any unsanctioned influence, from the practice of Islam to ideas from foreign countries).Yael Grauer, “Revealed: Massive Chinese Police Database” at The Intercept (January 29, 2021)
The Thought Police
According to The Intercept, the police database is “the product of a reporting tool called iTap, developed by a private defense company called Landasoft. The software is used by the Chinese government to facilitate police surveillance of citizens in Xinjiang.” This software interfaces with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) a database platform that incorporates and analyzes large swathes of data and determines, via its algorithm, what action police should take against a person. In 2019, Human Rights Watch reverse engineered the IJOP mobile app and found that many of the behaviors that cause people to be “flagged” are legal and innocuous, such as using the back door of their home more often than the front door or using more electricity than usual.
The Intercept Report says iTap aggregates information on phone activity. Everything a Uyghur does on his or her phone, including the number of times an app is opened, when it is opened, how long the person spends on the app, the length of phone calls, and whether those calls were made to a foreign country, are all part of the profiling.
Another surveillance tool in Xinjiang is called the “anti-terrorism sword,” used at security checkpoints. It plugs into a smartphone and retrieves the content, which includes WeChat conversations, text messages, audio files, pictures, etc. Sometimes a tracking app is added to the person’s phone. All of this integrates with IJOP, which is then linked with the person’s national identification card number.
Some Uyghurs use flip phones so they are not stopped at multiple checkpoints while they are out. But buying flip phones, turning off your smartphone for any length of time, or using a virtual private network (VPN) will get a person flagged by the algorithm:
You cannot feel safe anywhere because of your cellphone,” said Abduweli Ayup, a linguist and poet who lived in Kashgar, Xinjiang. “You have to turn your cellphone on 24 hours, and you have to answer the phone at any time if police call you.” He said that with chat apps also monitored, Uyghurs can never experience privacy, even at home.Yael Grauer, “Revealed: Massive Chinese Police Database” at The Intercept (January 29, 2021)
The police database also shows that there is an extensive international monitoring system of Uyghurs outside of the country. It is called “backflow prevention” because authorities want to prevent the “backflow of extremism and other malign ideas from abroad.”
If the person being monitored lives in a country where they cannot be interviewed or detained, then the authorities will come for any member of the person’s family that is still living in China. Human Rights Watch noted that an investigation by Canadian research group Citizen Lab found that China has been monitoring WeChat users outside of China. And this past year, US-based Lookout said that the CCP has been hacking into Uyghurs’ phones both within China and outside China since 2013.
The database also shows that Uyghurs’ behavior during the community flag-raising ceremony, a nationalistic ceremony that honors the Chinese flag and the Communist party, is monitored by authorities. If a person has been detained and then released, that person and family members are evaluated for “enthusiasm” during the ceremony using facial recognition software that studies facial expressions, in addition to real-life monitoring by authorities.
The data files show a networked system in which families are placed into community groups, called brigades, and incentivized to report on each other if they see any religious activities. The brigades are sub-divided into groups of 10 households or 10 businesses. A volunteer from each group reports to the authorities and is in charge of carrying out “anti-terrorism” exercises. Darren Byler, anthropologist at the University of Colorado and columnist with SupChina, says that this is the militarization of the population as a whole. He reports that, while he was in Xinjiang, he could see people practicing military-like exercises, though this has not been reported in other leaked documents.
Xinjiang is meant to be a model
Xinjiang is meant to be a testing ground for large-scale surveillance that will eventually span the whole country. This is being done using the social credit system and Xi’s “Sharp Eyes” initiative. The goal of Sharp Eyes is to put the entire country under complete surveillance, a feat that has only been technologically possible within this decade. Additionally, the CCP has used the pandemic as a way to enhance surveillance of its citizens using a health code app.
The surveillance system used in Xinjiang can be transferred to other countries as well. Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Mauritius have all purchased surveillance networks from China.
China has repeatedly called for countries to not interfere with each other’s internal matters, but what China does in Xinjiang has implications for the rest of the world. Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told The Intercept:
“The mass surveillance in Xinjiang is a cautionary tale for all of us…Xinjiang really shows how privacy is a gateway right, where if you have no privacy, that’s where you see that you have no freedoms as a human being at all. You don’t have the right to practice your religion, you don’t have the right to be who you are, you don’t even have the right to think your own thoughts because your thoughts are being parsed out by these incessant visits and incessantly monitored by surveillance systems, whether they’re human or artificial, and evaluated constantly for your level of loyalty to the government.”Yael Grauer, “Revealed: Massive Chinese Police Database” at The Intercept (January 29, 2021)
Currently, constitutional protections prevent this type of surveillance in North America and Europe but it may prove increasingly attractive to governments.
You may also want to read: China’s Health Code app: One more way to track citizens: For the Chinese Communist Party, SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus) has provided an opportunity to expand its massive surveillance system. by Heather Zeiger