HRW Reveals How Xinjiang Police Profile Uyghurs
A new report from Human Rights Watch details the types of information that police are using to profile Xinjiang residents amid a massive security crackdown in the region. The crackdown has included the detention of an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a series of internment camps. The report’s findings, arrived at through a yearlong project reverse-engineering a policing app used by Xinjiang authorities, help explain how police interface with the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” (IJOP), a predictive policing system that examines residents’ behavior to determine who should be interrogated and potentially detained. (HRW described the IJOP at length in a 2018 report.) At The Guardian, Simina Mistreanu summarizes the report:
Data collection, including people’s blood type, height and religious practices, has been central to the crackdown, which started in late 2016, the rights group says.
[…] The app targets 36 “person types” to whom officials must pay special attention. The categories include seemingly harmless behaviours such as “does not socialise with neighbours, seldom uses front door”; “suddenly returned to hometown after being away for a long time”; “collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm”; and “household uses an abnormal amount of electricity.”
After assisting authorities in filing reports on potentially suspicious people, the app prompts them to carry out “investigative missions” during which they collect even more personal data. Investigations might require, for example, checking a person’s phone for any of the 51 apps deemed problematic such as WhatsApp and virtual private networks (VPNs).
The IJOP app might also require information about a person’s vehicle, including colour, type and licence plate number. The data could enable surveillance cameras equipped with artificial intelligence to track the vehicle as it travels and passes through checkpoints, Human Rights Watch said. [Source]
University of Washington’s Darren Byler explored the system’s various inputs in a recent article for Logic Magazine.
More on the report’s findings from ABC News’ Victor Ordonez and Jinsol Jung:
According to the report, an additional feature of the app allows authorities to track the completion of daily tasks, an example of which would be investigating a person who displayed “strong religiousness.”
HRW says the app includes facial recognition components developed by Face++, a privately-owned facial recognition company in China. The function is used to check whether the photo on an ID matches the person’s face, or to cross-check pictures on two different documents, according to the report.
Megvii, Face++’s parent company, told ABC News that it has no relationship with IJOP, and that it has “no understanding of why Face++ technology may be found in the IJOP mobile app.” [Source]
Covering the report, AFP’s Elaine Yu quotes an external expert who explains the psychological implications of the IJOP’s method of highly-detailed surveillance, and a cybersecurity expert on the potential future usage of the massive amount of data collected:
“Psychologically, the more people are sure that their actions are monitored and that they, at anytime, can be judged for moving outside of a safe grey-space, the more likely they are to do everything to avoid coming close to crossing a moving red- line,” Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, told AFP.
“There is no rule of law in China, the Party ultimately decides what is legal and illegal behaviour, and it doesn’t have to be written down.”[…]
Greg Walton, an independent cybersecurity expert who advised on the report, said while the system is a “blunt instrument that may be directly contributing to the massive numbers of people in internment camps”, the data if stored could be used in the future for more advanced policing algorithms.
“This means that data collected through the app today may well be analysed in a few years’ time by far more sophisticated logic,” he said. [Source]
On Twitter, Dr. Adrian Zenz, who was the first to provide substantive evidence on the existence of the internment camps, agreed:
My overall analysis of the Xinjiang surveillance app findings is that the state is still at least substantially in a manual, labor-intensive data mining stage: establishing "typical" behaviors patterns that can be fed into predictive policing /AI algorithms. https://t.co/z7tfbQGk0o
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) May 2, 2019
Authorities appear to be using Xinjiang as a pilot region to test cutting-edge, high-tech surveillance and policing methods that could later be used in other locales, domestic and foreign. At The Washington Post, Gerry Shih quotes HRW’s senior China researcher Maya Wang on the nationwide–and potential global–implications of the IJOP:
The Xinjiang model could be a testing ground for the rest of China, where law enforcement authorities are building a national “Police Cloud,” Wang said.
[…] But the Xinjiang example also carries profound global implications in an era of big data, artificial intelligence and high-tech policing.
“This is not just about Xinjiang or even China — it’s about the world beyond and whether we human beings can continue to have freedom in a world of connected devices,” Wang said. “It’s a wake-up call, not just about China but about every one of us.”
[…] State-owned Chinese contractors and private start-ups have been making significant advances in facial- and gait-recognition technologies that are being increasingly deployed in China’s airports, train stations and hotels. […] [Source]
In an interview with HRW’s media desk and again in a Twitter thread, Maya Wang describes how they discovered the IJOP and reverse engineered the app while covering the rights situation in Xinjiang. HRW has also posted an interactive demonstration of the app, including screenshots from the IJOP app along with English translations. The post closes with the organization’s call for Beijing to immediately shut down the IJOP system:
The Chinese government should immediately shut down the IJOP platform and delete all the data that it has collected from individuals in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said. Concerned foreign governments should impose targeted sanctions, such as under the US Global Magnitsky Act, including visa bans and asset freezes, against the Xinjiang Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo, 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. United Nations member countries should push for an international fact-finding mission to assess the situation in Xinjiang and report to the UN Human Rights Council. [Source]
The internment camps, and the IJOP system apparently used to fill the camps, come as the most extreme measures in a security crackdown in Xinjiang launched in 2014 in response to rising incidents of violence in the region and elsewhere in China. Since its launch, the crackdown has included increasingly invasive and controversial policies—mostly targeting Xinjiang and the Uyghur ethnic minority native to the region. Policies have included the limitation of Islamic dress, the banning of religious customs, and the encouragement of practices forbidden in Islam. Rights advocates and overseas Uyghur groups see these controversial policies as responsible for exacerbating ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.
At the AFP, Gohar Abbas interviewed Pakistani men whose Uyghur wives were recently released from the camps. The men relay their wives’ tales of being forced to betray their faith:
[…T]he men [said] their partners were forced into acts that are haram, or forbidden, to followers of Islam — both in the camps and now they’ve been freed.
“She said they had to eat pork and drink alcohol, something she still has to do,” one merchant, who recently visited his wife at her parents’ house in Xinjiang told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
“She was told that she had to satisfy the authorities that she no longer possesses radical thoughts if she does not want to go back,” he explained, adding that she had given up praying and the Quran had been replaced by books on China at his in-laws home.
Some of the traders, who traditionally leave their wives in Xinjiang for weeks or months at a time when they return home to conduct business, believe the women were taken to the camps because of their connection to Pakistan, which is an Islamic republic. [Source]
Read Human Rights Watch’s full report, “China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App.” View multiple report summary translations and the source material consulted for the project at HRW’s GitHub page. See more on recent scrutiny of security and surveillance technology in Xinjiang, or a roundup on GitHub’s censorship resilience and its possible limits, both via CDT.