China using big data as repression tool in restive Xinjiang region, Human Rights Watch says
Integrated Joint Operations Platform tracks almost all citizens of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygur ethnic minority, group says
Human Rights Watch said it has found fresh evidence that authorities in one of China’s most repressive regions are sweeping up citizens’ personal information in a stark example of how big data technology can be used to police a population – and potentially abused.
The rights group used publicly available government procurement documents, media reports and interviews to assemble details of the policing programme called the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” in Xinjiang, a sprawling area in northwestern China that security officials say harbours separatist and religious extremist elements.
Unidentified sources inside Xinjiang described to Human Rights Watch the computer and mobile app interfaces of the software that tracks almost all citizens of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygur ethnic minority and stores detailed information including their travel history, prayer habits, number of books in their possession, banking and health records.
Procurement notices show that the platform also deploys vehicle number plate tracking and facial recognition cameras to follow people in real time and provide “predictive warnings” about impending crime, Human Rights Watch said.
Although surveillance is pervasive in many countries, including the United States and Britain, and has the potential for abuse, the technology is being deployed far more broadly in Xinjiang, said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author.
“In China, the programmes are very explicitly focused on people who are politically threatening or an entire Uygur ethnic group,” Wang said.
An official at the press office of Xinjiang police headquarters on Monday confirmed that question from Associated Press had been received, but said leaders were out and he had no idea when or if there would be a reply. The official, like many Chinese bureaucrats, declined to give his name because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
China’s 10 million Uygurs already face a raft of restrictions not imposed on people of the Han ethnicity, who are the overwhelming majority in China. Uygurs face multiple hurdles in procuring passports and those who have them are required to leave them with the police. Hotels are required to register their presence with the local authorities and frequently turn them away to avoid the hassle. Frequent road blocks and checkpoints across the vast Xinjiang region enable authorities to stop people and check their mobile phones for content that might be deemed suspicious.
Such pressure was ratcheted up following a series of deadly attacks blamed on Uygur extremists seeking independence from Chinese rule.
A 2017 investigation by Associated Press showed that thousands of Uygurs in Xinjiang, and possibly many more, have been sent to an extrajudicial network of political indoctrination centres for months at a time for reasons including studying abroad and communicating with relatives abroad.
Evidence was also found in government documents and procurement contracts of the Xinjiang government compiling biometric and personal data and systematically rating its Uygur citizens’ political reliability.
The Human Rights Watch report reveals for the first time that the disparate data collection efforts appear to be unified under one central digital database that calculates citizens’ political risk.
Use of the integrated computer system has led to people being detained and sent to political indoctrination centres, Wang said, citing interviewees who were kept anonymous out of concern for their safety.
Wang said she had found evidence that Chinese police were building similar big data tracking capabilities in other parts of the country under a programme called the “police cloud”, but did not deploy them to such an extent as in Xinjiang.