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China is using spy software to flag and detain citizens it says are ‘threatening’

A security camera looks down to survey the area. (Max Pixel/Released)
March 07, 2018

Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed this week that Chinese authorities in the western region of Xinjiang are using predictive software to flag individuals deemed to be “potentially threatening” to officials.

The means by which Chinese officials utilize technology to monitor suspected individuals ranges from CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras with facial recognition to WiFi data collection capabilities. Personal information such as license plate numbers and citizen ID card numbers are also harvested.

Vehicle checkpoints can also transmit information in real time to the Integrated Join Operations Platform (IJOP), which is the establishment that receives all of the data. The IJOP also draws from existing information such as health, banking and legal records.

According to witnesses interviewed by HRW, some of those people targeted are also being detained and sent to “political re-education centers” where they are held indefinitely and can be subject to abuse.

A subsidiary of China Electronics Technology Group announced back in 2016 that it would work with the Xinjiang government to combat extremism by mining data on Chinese citizens and flagging unusual activity. Any unusual activity was alerted to authorities, and the individuals were subsequently detained, though not formally charged with any crimes.

According to witnesses, the individuals were then held in “political education” centers, where they are subjected to propaganda promoting Chinese identity.

“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher at HRW.

“The Chinese authorities are holding people at these ‘political education’ centers not because they have committed any crimes, but because they deem them politically unreliable,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has provided no credible reasons for holding these people and should free them immediately.”

The centers reportedly force detainees to watch pro-government propaganda videos, renounce their ethnic and religious identities, and recite slogans such as “religion is harmful” and “learning Chinese is part of patriotism.”

The extreme surveillance and increased concern from Chinese officials is a direct result of rising tensions between the Han majority and the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, who also call the region of Xinjiang home. The Uighur are culturally distinct from the Han and face significant discrimination from the government, including pressure to learn Mandarin and integrate with the Han.

The measures are part of an ongoing “Strike-Hard” campaign, along with President Xi’s desire for “stability maintenance” and “enduring peace,” according to HRW. While authorities say the campaign targets terroristic elements, its practice is far broader. Anyone suspected of political disloyalty, which in Xinjiang could mean any Uyghur – even those peacefully expressing their religious or cultural identity – are subject to scrutiny.

Official reports also said that the “Strike Hard” program helped police arrest criminals guilty of petty theft and illegal financial dealings, but individuals interviewed by HRW paint a different picture.

One source who knew family members detained by officials under the program told HRW that detainees sent to political education centers were not presented with a warrant, evidence of a crime, or any other documentation. Relatives had no knowledge of the local authority groups that were responsible for taking their family members, and sometimes they were not even told where they were being held.

HRW’s sources also said that men, women and children were all being held. In one case, a family of four, including two children, was taken to a facility for simply traveling abroad for business and for the Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. One parent and one child were released after three months, but the other two were believed to still be in custody.