Mar 02, 2018

East Turkestan: Human Rights Watch Reports China’s Use of Big Data Collecting System to Monitor Uyghurs

Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed on 26 February 2018 that Chinese authorities are using a brand new massive and intrusive data collecting system in order to monitor and grade citizens of East Turkestan. The system uses public databases, citizen information, criminal records, health records and personal records in order to impose a fierce control over the Uyghur minority. HRW describes this surveillance system as Orwellian and condemns firmly its use.

The following article was originally published on Human Rights Watch

Chinese authorities are building and deploying a predictive policing program based on big data analysis in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said today. The program aggregates data about people – often without their knowledge – and flags those it deems potentially threatening to officials.

According to interviewees, some of those targeted are detained and sent to extralegal “political education centers” where they are held indefinitely without charge or trial, and can be subject to abuse.

“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights, but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People in Xinjiang can’t resist or challenge the increasingly intrusive scrutiny of their daily lives because most don’t even know about this ‘black box’ program or how it works.”

Human Rights Watch said Xinjiang authorities in recent years have increased mass surveillance measures across the region, augmenting existing tactics with the latest technologies. Since around April 2016, Human Rights Watch estimates, Xinjiang authorities have sent tens of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to “political education centers.”

These actions are part of the regional authorities’ ongoing “Strike-Hard” campaign, and of President Xi’s “stability maintenance” and “enduring peace” drive in the region. Authorities say the campaign targets “terrorist elements,” but it is in practice far broader, and encompasses anyone suspected of political disloyalty, which in Xinjiang could mean any Uyghur, particularly those who express, even peacefully, their religious or cultural identity.

Since August 2016, the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security has posted procurement notices confirming the establishment of the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台), a system that receives data on individuals from many different sources. Kashgar Prefecture appears to be one of the first areas where the system is complete and in regular use.

These notices reveal that the IJOP gathers information from multiple sources or “sensors.” One source is CCTV cameras, some of which have facial recognition or infrared capabilities (giving them “night vision”). Some cameras are positioned in locations police consider sensitive: entertainment venues, supermarkets, schools, and homes of religious figures. Another source is “wifi sniffers,” which collect the unique identifying addresses of computers, smartphones, and other networked devices. The IJOP also receives information such as license plate numbers and citizen ID card numbers from some of the region’s countless security checkpoints and from “visitors’ management systems” in access-controlled communities. The vehicle checkpoints transmit information to IJOP, and “receive, in real time, predictive warnings pushed by the IJOP” so they can “identify targets… for checks and control.”

The IJOP also draws on existing information, such as one’s vehicle ownership, health, family planning, banking, and legal records, according to official reports. Police and local officials are also required to submit to IJOP information on any activity they deem “unusual” and anything “related to stability” they have spotted during home visits and policing. One interviewee said that possession of many books, for example, would be reported to IJOP, if there is no ready explanation, such as having teaching as one’s profession.

Police officers, local Party and government cadres, and fanghuiju (访惠聚, an acronym which stands for Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Get Together the Hearts of the People [访民情、惠民生、聚民心]) teams are also deployed to visit people at home to gather data. Fanghuiju teams consist of officials from different agencies who have since 2013 been sent out to villages and local communities for the overarching purpose of “safeguarding social stability.” According to official reports, the frequency of fanghuiju visits to a given family – as often as every day to once every two months – depends on whether the family is considered politically “untrustworthy.” During the visits, people are required to provide a range of data about their family, their “ideological situation,” and relationships with neighbors. Official reports say these teams use mobile apps to ensure that “the information for every household” is “completely filled in” and submitted to IJOP.

Police officers and local officials tasked with data collection do not appear to explain the reasons for such data collection, nor give residents a choice to decline to provide the data, according to interviewees.

An Urumqi-based businessman shared with Human Rights Watch a form he was made to fill out for submission to the IJOP program in 2017. That form asked questions on religious practices, such as how many times the person prays every day and name of the person’s regular mosque; whether and where the person had traveled abroad, including to any of “26 [sensitive] countries”; and their “involvement with [political] instability,” including via relatives. The form also asks whether the person is a Uyghur, has been flagged by the IJOP, and is “trustworthy” to the authorities.

Another interviewee told Human Rights Watch he had observed the IJOP computer interface in the neighborhood committee office on multiple occasions in the past year:

I saw with my own eyes, on designated computers…the names, gender, ID numbers, occupation, familial relations, whether that person is trusted, not trusted, detained, subjected to political education (and year, month, date) for every Uyghur in that district. Those detained or not trusted, their color [coding] is different. Also, the content of the form is different depending on what has [already] been filled in. For example, for Uyghurs who have passports: when they got it, where did they go, how long did they stay, when did they come back, did they give their passports [to the police], did they come back from abroad, the reasons for travelling abroad such as family visits, tourism, pursuing studies, business, or others.

According to official and state media reports, the IJOP regularly “pushes” information of interest and lists of names of people of interest to police, Chinese Communist Party, and government officials for further investigation. Officials then are supposed to act on these clues that same day (不过夜), including through face-to-face visits. The IJOP data is evaluated together with other sources of information, such as the person’s “general performance” during “study meetings.”

Upon “inspection,” individuals “who ought to be taken, should be taken” (应收尽收) into custody, two work reports by local fanghuiju teams say. Two people told Human Rights Watch that they had observed the IJOP computer interface generate lists of individuals to be rounded-up by the police. One heard police saying that some of those on the list would be detained and/or sent to political education centers. The other said:

Those pushed by IJOP are detained and investigated. As to how long that investigation takes place, nobody knows. During investigation, the person maybe held in the detention center or in the “political education” center. [Afterwards] that person can be sentenced to prison or subjected to [further] “political education.”

Most reports provide little detail about precisely how the IJOP conducts its analysis. An August 2017 post by a fanghuiju team noted that IJOP flagged those “villagers who, without reason, failed to pay for their mobile phone bills and got disconnected,” as well as those “whose phone and video calls involve terrorism and violence.” An earlier press article dated October 2016 about an unnamed “big data platform” in Jiashi County (or Peyziwat County), Kashgar Prefecture, says it analyzes geographic, migrant population, fertilizer, gas, vehicle, and other data about people’s daily lives and alerts the police if it discovers any “unusual activity.” A police researcher involved with the project explained:

For example, if a person usually only buys 5 kilos of chemical fertilizers, but suddenly [the amount] increases to 15 kilos, then we would send the frontline officers to visit [the person] and check its use. If there is no problem, [they would] input into the system the situation, and lower the alert level.

While official references to IJOP are rare, one official WeChat report acknowledged that the IJOP is contributing analytics that land people in political education centers in the campaign against “Two-Faced” Uyghur officials thought to be disloyal to the Party:

Finally, after the political legal [authorities] and public security used the IJOP to…again analyze and study [the cadres], they are sent to the county’s Occupational Skills and Education Training Center to be [politically] educated.

Xinjiang police claim that the IJOP has assisted them in bona fide crime-fighting: two publicized cases involved finding a petty thief and an individual involved in unlawful financial transaction.

“If the Chinese government’s goal is to prevent bona fide crimes, it could train police and procurators in professional, rights-respecting methods, and empower defense lawyers,” Wang said. “Arbitrary mass surveillance and detention are Orwellian political tools; China should abandon use of them and release all those held in political education centers immediately.”

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons