“Donating to mosques,” “avoiding using the front door,” or using WhatsApp and VPNs have been marked as suspicious activity prompting investigation on a Chinese technological system monitoring those in Xinjiang, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report exclusively accessed by the Indian Express.
The Chinese government has fallen under much international criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. HRW, in conjunction with a German security company, has reverse engineered a mobile application called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) system that officials use to collect data on individuals in Xinjiang to determine their “level of threat.” After “investigative missions,” the highest offenders are imprisoned, are subject to house arrest, are not allowed into public places, or are not allowed out of China, according to HRW.
“They have no right to legal counsel, and some are subjected to torture and mistreatment, for which they have no effective redress,” the report states. “The result is Chinese authorities, bolstered by technology, arbitrarily and indefinitely detaining Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang en masse for actions and behavior that are not crimes under Chinese law.”
The IJOP central system collects information from package deliveries, CCTV cameras (which they can apply facial recognition), and wifi sensors (which collect data on networked devices), the report states. This central system is connected to a mobile application that officials use “during home visits,” “on the streets,” in “political education camps,” “during registration for those who travel abroad” and “when collecting information from foreign nationals,” according to HRW.
Officials collect information regarding religion, politics, and activities, and they categorise them into 36 “person types, including “adherents of Wahhabism”, “knows welding and how to make explosives”, “unwilling to enjoy benefits … by the local government”, or connected to “those abroad.”
Then, the central system sends officers mission instructions for “investigative missions” that entail collecting more information about individuals, vehicles, or events. HRW’s research into these missions revealed the categories of “suspicious” people, including those using too much electricity, those returning from abroad, internal migrants, people related to those who cannot be contacted, and people related to those who have started a new phone number account.
Lead researcher Maya Wang said reverse-engineering is a new methodology for a human rights organisation. “It examines the IJOP, which is the “heart” of the mass surveillance systems in Xinjiang, a region in China with the most intrusive and visible forms of mass surveillance. It provides unprecedented details into the inner workings of how these mass surveillance systems work, giving exactly which 51 network tools the authorities find suspicious, or which 36 people types are “problematic” from the government’s point of view. It also provides further evidence—coded in an official app—that the authorities are targeting behaviors, many of them perfectly legal—as indicators of suspiciousness, to identify groups of people for interrogation and arbitrary detention in political education camps.”