In a mass surveillance effort that tracks personal information and private behavior, Chinese officials are keeping tabs on whether residents in the far west region of Xinjiang socialize with their neighbors or use excessive electricity, Human Rights Watch revealed in a report last week.
The advocacy group reverse engineered a police mobile app that officials use to connect to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which collects personal information, files reports, and prompts investigations.
The app gathers information like a person’s height, religious and political affiliations, and vehicle color. It also lists 36 “person types” that authorities should watch more closely, including people who use abnormal amounts of electricity, drive a car registered under a different name, or do not socialize with their neighbors or use their front doors.
“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 Human Rights Watch.
The app also prompts officials to carry out “investigative missions” to search people’s phones for 51 suspicious internet tools, including WhatsApp, Viber, and virtual private networks (VPNs). The Integrated Joint Operations Platform uses map functionality to allow officials to find the shortest route to get to residents. It also employs facial recognition to check whether people’s faces match their identification.
The Chinese government is holding as many as 1 million minority Uighur Muslims and other Turkic Muslims in so-called reeducation camps across Xinjiang. Alim, a Uighur man in his 20s, told The Guardian he could not enter public places like banks or parks after the platform marked him as a potential terrorist and alerted officials of his movements. “I’m so angry and afraid at the same time,” he said.
During an April 30 visit with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang insisted the country is properly handling the situation in the region.
“In Xinjiang, China has taken preventive anti-terrorism and deradicalization measures that are entirely lawful, which respect and protect human rights, and have won extensive support from people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang,” Geng said.
But human rights advocates warn the country’s surveillance is only growing. China has the largest monitoring system in the world, with about 170 million closed circuit TV cameras across the country. It is expected to increase by another 400 million cameras by 2020.
“While Xinjiang’s systems are particularly intrusive, their basic designs are similar to those the police are planning and implementing throughout China,” Human Rights Watch said.
The group called on foreign governments to impose targeted sanctions against senior officials linked to the abuses and requested a fact-finding mission to assess the situation in Xinjiang.