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Uncovering China’s mass-surveillance app

A camera surveilles Beijing A camera surveilles Beijing
25 Jun
From using too much electricity to stepping out the back door, a new report by Human Rights Watch reveals the extent to which every day behaviour in China’s Xinjiang region is monitored by the authorities, contributing to a regime of constant surveillance and mass detention

For citizens living in Xinjiang, the region in the northwest of China home to most of the country’s Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, it is safe to assume that every act is watched. Across the province, under the guise of a counter-terrorism policy called the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’, around one million government officials preside over 13 million Muslims. A new report by NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has now revealed how a mobile app used by these officials helps them collect vast amounts of personal data and prompts them to flag seemingly normal behaviour as suspicious. 

The app, designed by subsidiaries of a state-owned military contractor called China Electronics Technology Group Corporation according to procurement documents, was accessed by HRW when it became publicly available, though Maya Wang, author of the HRW report, explains that this was probably never meant to be the case. ‘It was a careless mistake that prompted some of the people who have this app to put it online,’ she explains. Once HRW had access to the app they were able to reverse engineer it. This process revealed that it is designed to help officials fulfil three broad functions: collecting personal information, reporting on activities deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

The HRW report details how the app presents officials with a series of drop-down menus. The information collected about individuals is wide-ranging, including blood-type, height, car colour, ‘religious atmosphere’ and political affiliation. This information is fed into a policing programme called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang. HRW findings suggest that every citizen in the region is subject to monitoring under this programme.

shutterstock 1153832398 Some Chinese officials now use a mobile app to help them collect vast amounts of personal data

The app then allows officials to report on activities deemed suspicious. Analysis of the source code revealed that 36 types of people are flagged, from someone who ‘does not socialise with neighbours, seldom uses front door’ to someone who ‘collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm’, or who ‘suddenly returned to hometown after being away for a long time’. Further investigation of individuals is then prompted if the IJOP system detects irregularities or deviations from what it considers ‘normal’. This could include situations in which someone uses a phone 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. Relations of these people are also deemed suspicious by association. 

The HRW report notes that many, if not all of these mass surveillance practices appear to be contrary to Chinese law. It also states that ‘many - if not most - behaviors the IJOP system pays special attention to have no clear relationship to terrorism or extremism’. Wang explains that while this accords with current understanding of the situation in Xinjiang, it provides an unprecedented insight into how the system actually works. ‘It reveals a contrast to the authorities’ narrative that this is about targeted surveillance,’ she says.

The report goes on to state that information fed into the IJOP system, via the app and other means of surveillance, can lead to internment in Xinjiang’s prisons and political education camps, while other people are subjected to house arrest or face restrictions on their movement. Current estimates indicate that over one million Muslims are detained in political education camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese Government refers to these camps as voluntary ‘training centres’ and has likened them to boarding schools, but eyewitness accounts have detailed torture and abuse.

It is striking that much of the information gathered via the app is collected through on-the-ground surveillance. Wang explains that officials in Xinjiang enter people’s homes on a regular basis, partly as part of a programme called ‘becoming families’. ‘The becoming families programme involves government officials staying in people’s homes, eating with them or farming with them. It’s round the clock surveillance,’ she says. ‘Last year we interviewed some of the people who were on the receiving end of the programme and they talked about how terrified they were to be surveilled in that way. Government officials were asking questions such as “where’s your husband?” Or asking the children things. People feel terrified that a slip of the tongue could lead them to political education.’

shutterstock 1028635135One million Chinese Muslims are detained in ‘training camps’

While the situation in Xinjiang is extreme, the report stresses that the basic design of the surveillance system is ‘similar to those the police are planning and implementing throughout China’. According to Wang, this huge surveillance effort by the ruling party comes down to retaining power. ‘I think the goal is to ensure that the party stays in power forever, which is challenging for them to do,’ she explains. ‘The shift to a market based economy has meant that the party has lost some of the old tools for social control and so they decided that technology is going to be very good for them in achieving that purpose.’

HRW are now calling on concerned foreign governments to impose targeted sanctions against the Xinjiang Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo, and other senior officials. Wang explains that it is difficult to target China with more general sanctions without also impeding essential scientific research and access to information by researchers who come from China but have nothing to do with surveillance. ‘One of the strategies of the Chinese government is civilian and military fusion - the leverage of civilian technologies for military development,’ she explains. ‘It’s intent on blurring the lines and that makes it very difficult to create any solutions that separate the civilian from the military.’

Despite the difficulties, Wang is insistent that everybody should be alert to and concerned about developments in China. ‘There is no privacy first world,’ she says. ‘Even if you’re in Europe or the US you have to be very worried about where your data is going or if it is protected. This is a cautionary tale that I think is applicable everywhere today.’

This was published in the July 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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