New Reports on Digital Surveillance and DNA Collection in Tibet; Repression Against Tibetan Diaspora

As part of a larger interview series about Tibet, CDT recently published two interviews specifically about digital surveillance in Tibet: “Lhadon Tethong on Tibetans’ ‘Spirit of Resistance and Desire for Freedom,’” and “Tenzin Norgay on the State of Surveillance and Propaganda in Tibet Today.” This week, several reports were published that add new detail about Chinese authorities’ efforts to impose mass surveillance in Tibet, with the support of some American companies, and to repress Tibetan communities abroad.

The most recent report was published by Turquoise Roof, in collaboration with Tibet Watch, London. “Weaponising Big Data: Decoding China’s Digital Surveillance In Tibet” examines the “National Anti-Fraud Centre” app and its role in a larger government surveillance network. It also investigates the “Tibet Underworld Criminal Integrated Intelligence Application Platform,” a big-data policing platform that uses Oracle technology to amalgamate data from various Public Security Bureau systems in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Here are the report’s three main takeaways:

1. The weaponisation of big data policing analytics in Tibet by the Chinese security state extends the reach of Party mechanisms into the personal sphere. This surveillance is not only changing the way people communicate, but is having a society-wide ‘chilling effect’ on the way they think, feel and relate to each other, in many cases leading to a complete breakdown of digital contact.

2. Digital forensic analysis of an app that Tibetans are being forced to install at police checkpoints shows that the app has access to sensitive data and control over key device functionalities. This is being used for invasive surveillance, enabling the monitoring of personal information and activities, thus compromising user privacy and security. The broad scope of the app’s privacy-invasive permissions aligns with the extensive surveillance practices in the region, potentially aiding in the government’s efforts to control and monitor the populace.

3. This bulletin examines a new AI-driven big data policing platform in China. This platform is instrumental in implementing a policy that categorizes peaceful dissent and civil society activities, including support for the Dalai Lama’s autonomy proposal for Tibet, as ‘transnational organized crime’. It achieves this by integrating various existing police databases. This policy not only breaches international standards for cultural preservation and self-determination but also impedes effective global measures against real transnational organized crime. [Source]

CDT previously covered the proliferation of the “National Anti-Fraud Centre” app in September 2021, when police officers used social media to market the app, including by using cosplayers and other online influencers to reach millions of viewers. One user noted that they were forced to install the app in order to get vaccinated, and another user said they were forced to install the app in order to enter their residential compound in Shenzhen.

CDT also shed light on similar government methods of large-scale surveillance in its report, “Cloud Cover: Police Geographic Information System (PGIS) Procurement Across China, 2005-2022.” Our report found that local and provincial Tibetan governments have spent over 55 million yuan on PGIS technology over the past two decades, and that PGIS spending spiked in 2020 in Yunnan’s Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The report also highlighted numerous references to Oracle technology in Chinese PGIS procurement documents.

Earlier this week, Katrina Northrop at The Wire China reported on other ways that Chinese authorities have expanded their surveillance capacity in Tibet with the support of some U.S. companies. Her cover story, “The DNA Distortion,” examines how American company Accelerated Nuclear DNA Equipment (ANDE) has worked with various Chinese law enforcement bodies to facilitate rapid DNA testing, leaving Tibetan activists and their families at greater risk of retaliation:

ANDE’s rapid DNA test, which grew out of research at MIT and was funded early on by the U.S. government, adds another genetic technology to the Chinese toolkit. GAC’s website even shows a picture of an ANDE DNA machine being tested in a Tibetan area of Sichuan. GAC has also collaborated, according to its subsidiary’s website, with three research institutes under the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), a department within the Central Military Commission, the most powerful defense body in China, and MPS’s Institute of Forensic Science, which was sanctioned by the U.S. government until November and specializes in developing genomic solutions for the police. 

[…] “If we’re looking at U.S.-based companies that are dealing with police in Tibet,” says [Citizen Lab researcher Emile] Dirks, who reviewed GAC materials for The Wire, “we’re looking at companies which are willing to deal with a police force that, even in the Chinese context, is known for more extreme forms of surveillance and political repression.” 

[…] Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan activist who ran the Students for a Free Tibet campaign to convince Thermo Fisher to pull out of Tibet, says she worries that the prevalence of genetic testing in China will further undermine any sort of civil society or political dissent — what she sees as a lifeline for those living under repressive rule. After Lhamo started speaking out about Tibet as a teenager, she cut off ties with her extended family still in the region because she doesn’t want them to be punished for her advocacy. More widespread genetic testing, however, could make that precaution pointless.

“There are various struggles that immediate family members already face when somebody engages in any political matter,” she says, including losing access to social services and economic opportunities. “Now, with DNA testing and having access to a genetic database, that would subject extended families to this. The challenges would immediately be insurmountable.” [Source]

Transnational repression (TNR) has followed this expansion in state surveillance capacity. On this topic, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) published another report this week that collected first-hand testimonies of TNR from 84 exiled Tibetans in over ten countries. As explained in the report, “The goal [of TNR] is to undermine the legitimacy of overseas advocacy organisations and hinder their functionality by systematically employing economic, political or other devious means to dismantle their solidarity networks, perceived as threats to state authority.” Here are some of the forms and trends of TNR experienced by exiled Tibetans worldwide:

Chinese authorities are seeking to further sever connections between Tibetans in exile and their relatives in Tibet by making communication technically impossible or dangerous.

Chinese authorities are spying on exiled Tibetans to collect personal information. This information can then be used to infiltrate and sabotage diaspora networks (including through disinformation campaigns), and/or as a basis for blackmail. The Covid-19 pandemic has been instrumentalized to this end.

Chinese authorities in Tibet are seeking to control the behaviour of exiled Tibetans abroad (through direct intimidation and/or threats to their relatives), mostly coercing them into renouncing their activism.

Chinese authorities are seeking to undermine the livelihoods of exiled Tibetans, both in terms of material subsistence (e.g. forbidding money transfers from their relatives) and in terms of mental health (e.g. being told to stop attending cultural events such as teachings by the Dalai Lama). [Source]

One result of such pervasive transnational repression and digital surveillance is the silencing of free speech among Tibetans in Tibet and around the world. The TCHRD noted that an additional 26 Tibetans declined to testify for its report, likely due to self-censorship. Commenting on the Turquoise Roof report, Tenzin Choekyi, a senior researcher at Tibet Watch, told VOA that “Tibetans will [now] be even more careful with what they say or what they write on their phones,” and noted that communication between Tibetans in China and the diaspora community will become more difficult to maintain. At a forum in Washington, D.C. last week, Namgyal Choedup, Washington-based representative of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration to North America, referenced mass surveillance in Tibet: “Today we don’t hear much about Tibet. And the reason is exactly because it’s the least-free country on Earth.”

It was only after prolonged public advocacy efforts by numerous Tibetan and human-rights groups that U.S. biomedical company Thermo Fisher announced in January that it would no longer sell DNA identification technology to Chinese police in Tibet. (This came four years after the company decided to stop selling these products in Xinjiang, and it has so far continued selling them to police in other parts of China.) In an interview with the Human Rights Foundation last month, Pema Doma, the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, described the challenges Tibetan activists faced in campaigning for an end to Thermo Fisher’s sale of DNA kits to Chinese police in Tibet:

The CCP didn’t hold back when we were protesting that night in San Francisco [during Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the U.S.]. They unleashed a level of repression on foreign soil that is unimaginable to most other people living in this country. For example, they tried to push a 20-year-old Tibetan student off a five-story building because he held a banner that said “Free Tibet.” And this was outside the hotel, where [Thermo Fisher CEO Marc] Casper was dining with Xi. 

There was also a group of 10 or 15 thugs that the CCP paid to stalk activists on their way home from the protests, carrying sticks. When Tibetan activist and organizer Chemi Lhamo was walking with a group of young people — mostly 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds — the thugs followed them to the subway station, dragging metal poles on the ground to intimidate them. It reminded me of 2019 in Hong Kong, when thugs attacked activists at a train station. That could’ve been what happened to those activists in San Francisco. 

It was tough for the student activists, but none backed down; they kept persisting with the campaign. It is heartbreaking that young people have to experience that for a company to realize what is happening. However, the company ultimately agreed to have a meeting with the activists. [Source]

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