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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Digital Fascism: China’s Big Brother

China’s Algorithms of Repression

Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App

Summary

Since late 2016, the Chinese government has subjected the 13 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang to mass arbitrary detention, forced political indoctrination, restrictions on movement, and religious oppression. Credible estimates indicate that under this heightened repression, up to one million people are being held in “political education” camps. The government’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (Strike Hard Campaign, 严厉打击暴力恐怖活动专项行动) has turned Xinjiang into one of China’s major centers for using innovative technologies for social control.

China’s Mass Surveillance Phone App

“Our research shows, for the first time, that Xinjiang police are using illegally gathered information about people’s completely lawful behavior – and using it against them.”

This report provides a detailed description and analysis of a mobile app that police and other officials use to communicate with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台), one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch first reported on the IJOP in February 2018, noting the policing program aggregates data about people and flags to officials those it deems potentially threatening; some of those targeted are detained and sent to political education camps and other facilities. But by “reverse engineering” this mobile app, we now know specifically the kinds of behaviors and people this mass surveillance system targets.

The findings have broader significance, providing an unprecedented window into how mass surveillance actually works in Xinjiang, because the IJOP system is central to a larger ecosystem of social monitoring and control in the region. They also shed light on how mass surveillance functions in China. While Xinjiang’s systems are particularly intrusive, their basic designs are similar to those the police are planning and implementing throughout China.

Many—perhaps all—of the mass surveillance practices described in this report appear to be contrary to Chinese law. They violate the internationally guaranteed rights to privacy, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to freedom of association and movement. Their impact on other rights, such as freedom of expression and religion, is profound.

Human Rights Watch finds that officials use the IJOP app to fulfill three broad functions: collecting personal information, reporting on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

Analysis of the IJOP app reveals that authorities are collecting massive amounts of personal information—from the color of a person’s car to their height down to the precise centimeter—and feeding it into the IJOP central system, linking that data to the person’s national identification card number. Our analysis also shows that Xinjiang authorities consider many forms of lawful, everyday, non-violent behavior—such as “not socializing with neighbors, often avoiding using the front door”—as suspicious. The app also labels the use of 51 network tools as suspicious, including many Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and encrypted communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Viber.

The IJOP app demonstrates that Chinese authorities consider certain peaceful religious activities as suspicious, such as donating to mosques or preaching the Quran without authorization. But most of the other behavior the app considers problematic are ethnic-and religion-neutral. Our findings suggest the IJOP system surveils and collects data on everyone in Xinjiang. The system is tracking the movement of people by monitoring the “trajectory” and location data of their phones, ID cards, and vehicles; it is also monitoring the use of electricity and gas stations of everybody in the region. This is consistent with Xinjiang local government statements that emphasize officials must collect data for the IJOP system in a “comprehensive manner” from “everyone in every household.”

When the IJOP system detects irregularities or deviations from what it considers normal, such as when people are using a phone that is not registered to them, when they use more electricity than “normal,” or when they leave the area in which they are registered to live without police permission, the system flags these “micro-clues” to the authorities as suspicious and prompts an investigation.

Another key element of IJOP system is the monitoring of personal relationships. Authorities seem to consider some of these relationships inherently suspicious. For example, the IJOP app instructs officers to investigate people who are related to people who have obtained a new phone number or who have foreign links.

The authorities have sought to justify mass surveillance in Xinjiang as a means to fight terrorism.  While the app instructs officials to check for “terrorism” and “violent audio-visual content” when conducting phone and software checks, these terms are broadly defined under Chinese laws. It also instructs officials to watch out for “adherents of Wahhabism,” a term suggesting an ultra-conservative form of Islamic belief, and “families of those…who detonated [devices] and killed themselves.” But many—if not most—behaviors the IJOP system pays special attention to have no clear relationship to terrorism or extremism. Our analysis of the IJOP system suggests that gathering information to counter genuine terrorism or extremist violence is not a central goal of the system.

The app also scores government officials on their performance in fulfilling tasks and is a tool for higher-level supervisors to assign tasks to, and keep tabs on the performance of, lower-level officials. The IJOP app, in part, aims to control government officials to ensure that they are efficiently carrying out the government’s repressive orders.

In creating the IJOP system, the Chinese government has benefitted from Chinese companies who provide them with technologies. While the Chinese government has primary responsibility for the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang, these companies also have a responsibility under international law to respect human rights, avoid complicity in abuses, and adequately remedy them when they occur.

As detailed below, the IJOP system and some of the region’s checkpoints work together to form a series of invisible or virtual fences. Authorities describe them as a series of “filters” or “sieves” throughout the region, sifting out undesirable elements. Depending on the level of threat authorities perceive—determined by factors programmed into the IJOP system—, individuals’ freedom of movement is restricted to different degrees. Some are held captive in Xinjiang’s prisons and political education camps; others are subjected to house arrest, not allowed to leave their registered locales, not allowed to enter public places, or not allowed to leave China.

Government control over movement in Xinjiang today bears similarities to the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976), when people were restricted to where they were registered to live and police could detain anyone for venturing outside their locales. After economic liberalization was launched in 1979, most of these controls had become largely obsolete. However, Xinjiang’s modern police state—which uses a combination of technological systems and administrative controls—empowers the authorities to reimpose a Mao-era degree of control, but in a graded manner that also meets the economy’s demands for largely free movement of labor.

The intrusive, massive collection of personal information through the IJOP app helps explain reports by Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang that government officials have asked them or their family members a bewildering array of personal questions. When government agents conduct intrusive visits to Muslims’ homes and offices, for example, they typically ask whether the residents own exercise equipment and how they communicate with families who live abroad; it appears that such officials are fulfilling requirements sent to them through apps such as the IJOP app. The IJOP app does not require government officials to inform the people whose daily lives are pored over and logged the purpose of such intrusive data collection or how their information is being used or stored, much less obtain consent for such data collection.

A checkpoint in Turpan, Xinjiang. Some of Xinjiang’s checkpoints are equipped with special machines that, in addition to recognizing people through their ID cards or facial recognition, are also vacuuming up people’s identifying information from their

A checkpoint in Turpan, Xinjiang. Some of Xinjiang’s checkpoints are equipped with special machines that, in addition to recognizing people through their ID cards or facial recognition, are also vacuuming up people’s identifying information from their electronic devices. 

© 2018 Darren Byler

The trike Hard Campaign has shown complete disregard for the rights of Turkic Muslims to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. In Xinjiang, authorities have created a system that considers individuals suspicious based on broad and dubious criteria, and then generates lists of people to be evaluated by officials for detention. Official documents state that individuals “who ought to be taken, should be taken,” suggesting the goal is to maximize the number of people they find “untrustworthy” in detention. Such people are then subjected to police interrogation without basic procedural protections. They have no right to legal counsel, and some are subjected to torture and mistreatment, for which they have no effective redress, as we have documented in our September 2018 report. The result is Chinese authorities, bolstered by technology, arbitrarily and indefinitely detaining Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang en masse for actions and behavior that are not crimes under Chinese law.

And yet Chinese authorities continue to make wildly inaccurate claims that their “sophisticated” systems are keeping Xinjiang safe by “targeting” terrorists “with precision.” In China, the lack of an independent judiciary and free press, coupled with fierce government hostility to independent civil society organizations, means there is no way to hold the government or participating businesses accountable for their actions, including for the devastating consequences these systems inflict on people’s lives.

The Chinese government should immediately shut down the IJOP and delete all the data it has collected from individuals in Xinjiang. It should cease the Strike Hard Campaign, including all compulsory programs aimed at surveilling and controlling Turkic Muslims. All those held in political education camps should be unconditionally released and the camps shut down. The government should also investigate Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other senior officials implicated in human rights abuses, including violating privacy rights, and grant access to Xinjiang, as requested by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN human rights experts.

Concerned foreign governments should impose targeted sanctions, such as the US Global Magnitsky Act, including visa bans and asset freezes, against Party Secretary Chen and other senior officials linked to abuses in the Strike Hard Campaign. They should also impose appropriate export control mechanisms to prevent the Chinese government from obtaining technologies used to violate basic rights.

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This entry was posted on 2019/06/10 by .

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