The Chinese police are building a "big data" policing platform that can analyze massive amounts of citizens' personal information, using it to track rights activists, political opponents of the government, and ethnic minority groups, according to a U.S-based rights group.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to halt its "abusive" system, called the Police Cloud.
"It is frightening that Chinese authorities are collecting and centralizing ever more information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, identifying persons who deviate from what they determine to be ‘normal thought,’ and then surveilling them," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.
"With authorities increasingly able to track everyone’s every move, what’s at stake across China isn’t just people’s privacy—it’s also many of the rights they hold," Richardson said.
China's ministry of public security is currently exploring new technologies, including big data analytics and cloud computing-based systems, to analyze large volumes and varieties of data, including text, video, and pictures, HRW said in a report published this week.
There are also moves afoot to link up existing databases at national and local level, as well as those held by private organizations.
According to HRW, the Police Cloud includes details of people's medical history, supermarket purchases, delivery records, linking it to their national ID card numbers.
"This allows the Police Cloud system to track where the individuals have been, who they are with, and what they have been doing, as well as make predictions about their future activities," HRW said.
"The fact that these systems are designed in part to track groups the authorities deem politically or socially threatening raises serious concerns about social and racial profiling," it said.
No legal redress
The system can be used to track petitioners, those deemed to "undermine stability" through word or deed, those who are involved in terrorism, major criminals, those involved with drugs, wanted persons, and those with mental health problems who "tend to cause disturbances," according to HRW.
"Local police can decide that virtually anyone is a threat and requires greater surveillance, especially if they are seen to be undermining stability," the report said. "There are no legal avenues for people to be notified of this designation, or contest it."
Targeted groups include those who persist in complaining about the government through the petitioning system, and ethnic minority Uyghurs from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, it found.
Citing official documents, the report said Police Cloud systems are now fully operational in some provinces, including Tianjin Municipality and Jiangsu.
Medical records, petitions lodged with government departments, criminal convictions, corporate and individual use of social media and package delivery contents are among some of the data types now being linked by the new systems, it said.
Residential addresses, family relations, birth control methods and religious affiliations, as well as hotel, flight, and train records, biometrics, CCTV footage, and information from other government departments and even private companies are also being added to the mix.
The system "makes visible" hidden trends and relationships between people in the ocean of data, enabling keyword searches linking vast amounts of data.
It allows the police to analyze those "who travel, who live, who work together; who go on the internet; who share the same household registration; who share the same family members; and who are involved in the same case, HRW said.
Nationwide in five years
Jiangsu-based dissident Wu Shimin said the system appears to be already in use in some parts of China, and will likely be fully operational by the time the 20th party congress rolls around in five years' time.
"At the very least [to evade detection] you would need to change your phone number, and probably best use someone else's ID card to buy a train ticket to stay with friends or relatives, or to stay in a hotel," Wu said.
"But you'd have to be sure that your friends and family had no history of petitioning or a record of dissent," he said.
Shandong rights activist Zhang Enguang said he is likely on the list of persons "of interest" to be targeted by the Police Cloud.
"But I think there is bound to be some opposition, whether it be from rights organizations or regular citizens," Zhang said. "This is a breach of privacy."
"But even if you do protest, they'll still carry on collecting the data on the quiet anyway," he said. "Then they will use it in any way they can to frame you, and then they can detain you."
Currently, Chinese privacy laws don't meet the standards laid down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, HRW said.
The covenant states that the collection, retention, and use of the personal data of individuals for policing purposes must be both a necessary and proportionate means to handle a genuine threat to a public interest such as national security or public order, and that it should employ the least intrusive measures needed to counter such a threat.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lin Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie