China is using a mobile app to gather and store data on 13 million ethnic minority Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Thursday.
The report, “China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App,” analyzes how a Chinese-made mobile app helps XUAR authorities conduct “illegal mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of Muslims.”
The New York-based watchdog group worked for 14 months with German security firm Cure53 to reverse engineer the mobile app that officials use to connect to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a Xinjiang policing program that flags people deemed potentially threatening.
"The goal is apparently to identify patterns of, and predict, the everyday life and resistance of its population, and, ultimately, to engineer and control reality," HRW said in the report.
“The IJOP platform tracks everyone in Xinjiang. It monitors people’s movements by tracing their phones, vehicles, and ID cards. It keeps track of people’s use of electricity and gas stations,” said the report.
The government’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (Strike Hard Campaign) “has turned Xinjiang into one of China’s major centers for using innovative technologies for social control,” HRW said.
“Many—perhaps all—of the mass surveillance practices described in this report appear to be contrary to Chinese law. They violate the internationally guaranteed rights to privacy, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to freedom of association and movement,” HRW said in a statement.
“Their impact on other rights, such as freedom of expression and religion, is profound,” the group said.
36 types of people targeted
“Our research shows, for the first time, that Xinjiang police are using illegally gathered information about people’s completely lawful behavior – and using it against them,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at HRW.
“The Chinese government is monitoring every aspect of people’s lives in Xinjiang, picking out those it mistrusts, and subjecting them to extra scrutiny.”
HRW analysis of the app showed that the IJOP police platform targets 36 types of people for data collection.
Among those targeted are people who have stopped using smart phones, who use an “abnormal amount of electricity,” who do not use their front doors, who fail to “socialize with neighbors,” and who “collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm.”
Previous reporting by RFA has revealed that frequent travel abroad, overseas study, and having family members abroad have led to the incarceration of numerous Uyghurs as well as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, fellow Turkic Muslims.
“Official documents state that individuals ‘who ought to be taken, should be taken, suggesting the goal is to maximize the number of people they find ‘untrustworthy’ in detention, said the HRW report.
“Those people are then interrogated without basic protections. They have no right to legal counsel, and some are tortured or otherwise mistreated, for which they have no effective redress,” said HRW.
HRW says the IJOP is programmed to treat many ordinary and lawful activities as “indicators of suspicious behavior.” These include having any one of 51 suspicious internet tools on their phones, including WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
“While Xinjiang’s systems are particularly intrusive, their basic designs are similar to those the police are planning and implementing throughout China,” HRW said.
Vast camp system
The advocacy group called on China to “immediately shut down the IJOP platform and delete all the data that it has collected” and urged foreign governments to impose targeted sanctions against the XUAR Communist Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo, and other senior officials in Xinjiang and to impose export controls to prevent the Chinese government from obtaining such surveillance technologies.
Chen is seen as the architect of a program under which some 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas who are being held in political “re-education camps” across the Xinjiang XUAR since April 2017.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.