Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are building a comprehensive database that tracks the precise locations of its citizens, their mobile app usage, their religious habits and even their electricity and gasoline consumption as part of a technology-driven crackdown that has interred an estimated 1 million Muslim citizens, according to an analysis of Chinese government software by a U.S. rights group.
In the last two years, a growing body of testimony by former Xinjiang residents and a trove of government procurement documents, directives and state media reports have painted a picture of oppression in the region, where Chinese authorities have relied on far-reaching electronic surveillance to help dictate its mass internment program.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday it gained a new level of insight into precisely what information the Chinese government collects by examining a mobile app that Xinjiang officials use to input data into a database called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform.
The IJOP system, which keeps track of practically the entire Xinjiang population, alerts authorities when a person unexpectedly crosses virtual “fences” by driving past a certain checkpoint or checking into a hotel, according to the rights group. It tracks citizens’ smartphones, their national identification cards and GPS devices on their vehicles, which have been widely installed under new government regulations.
After denying their existence for a year, Chinese authorities have recently argued that Xinjiang’s network of detention centers are built for educating and de-radicalizing a Muslim population that became increasingly influenced by extremist Islamic ideology.
International rights groups and Western countries say the limited extremist threat does not warrant the vast scale of the internments, a suffocating surveillance regime and a law enforcement approach that punishes seemingly lawful behavior or standard religious practice.
While the broad outlines of Xinjiang’s surveillance effort was previously known, the Human Rights Watch provided technical proof of Chinese authorities tracking a litany of lawful behavior. The IJOP system tracked, for instance, whether a person’s phone was turned off for a long time, and whether a car’s owner or different person was filling up at a gas station, said Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang, the report’s author.
A person who avoided use of their front door would raise alarms, as would someone who avoided socializing with his or her neighbors or raised unusual amounts of money for a mosque, Wang’s analysis found. All told, Wang found the Xinjiang database kept logs of 36 types of behavior seen as suspicious, and a total of 51 mobile apps that were blacklisted – including WhatsApp, Telegram and virtual private networks.
The Xinjiang model could be a testing ground for the rest of China, where law enforcement authorities are currently 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.”