Phone app exposes surveillance of Xinjiang Muslims

Police are monitoring Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region via a smartphone app that accesses a vast array of personal information — from location data to whether they use WhatsApp — to flag “suspicious” behaviour, according to research by advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The app, used by police to access China’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) — a mass surveillance database — was obtained and analysed by advocacy group Human Rights Watch in partnership with security research team Cure53.

The discovery marks the deepest look the outside world has so far had into the tech-enabled authoritarianism of Beijing’s rule in Xinjiang, a region that has been all but closed off to diplomats and journalists.

“[China] is conducting illegal mass surveillance of completely lawful behaviour for the purpose of arbitrary detention,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch, adding that the use of such systems was not unique to Xinjiang.

“Similar designs, similar ideas behind vacuuming people’s information . . . are being put in place across China,” Ms Wang added.

Individuals marked “suspicious” by the IJOP can be taken into custody with no right to legal redress. More than 1.5m people are being held in camps in Xinjiang, most of whom are Uighur Muslims.

China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-owned military contractor, developed the IJOP system. In 2017, the company set up a research centre at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) focusing on areas such as big data, mapping and artificial intelligence.

A representative from the university said: “All of our research is . . . in the public arena and subject to peer review. None of this work is related to technologies reportedly being used in the Xinjiang region.”

The US government is considering further sanctions against companies and individuals involved in China’s police lockdown in Xinjiang. Last month a leading Chinese facial-recognition company, SenseTime, sold out of a security joint venture in Xinjiang after an international outcry.

“We have to view the surveillance infrastructure in Xinjiang, not just as something that is happening in a ‘remote’ corner of western China but as part of a global assemblage,” said Greg Walton, a security expert who reviewed Human Rights Watch’s report in advance of publication.

“Even at the micro scale, we can see references in the IJOP app to code from developers working from Shanghai to Silicon Valley,” he added.

China’s “intelligence-led policing”, which relies on gathering data to identify possible or repeat offenders, was partly copied from the British police, who pioneered the approach in the 1990s, Mr Walton said.

The IJOP app prompts police to gather a vast range of details about individuals they are interrogating. In addition, the app presents data taken from various sources — such as someone consuming more electricity than usual — as flags for “suspicious” behaviour.

Data labels found in the IJOP app overlapped with those found in a recent data leak from the Chinese police contractor SenseNets, which was found to have collected almost 6.7m GPS co-ordinates in a 24-hour period, tracing 2.6m people, mainly in Xinjiang. The matching data labels suggest that multiple companies and sources are feeding into the IJOP system.

The app also dispatches police on missions, for example to interview someone who has left the area of their household registration or who has returned home after spending “too long” abroad.

Police are in some cases prompted to check an individual’s phone for what the IJOP system calls “suspicious content”, such as the use of virtual private networks used to bypass internet censorship, “unusual software” and the messaging tools WhatsApp and Viber.

Individuals with “problematic” content on their phones may have identifying information about their phone sent to the police, who can then track their real-time locations via the cell phone masts they connect to.

One of HRW’s interviewees, Inzhu, said: “[My] husband . . . told me that they took his phone and they found WhatsApp on it, and they handed the phone back. He told them that in [the foreign country he lives in], a new phone comes with WhatsApp already installed. So, they asked for a receipt, and I sent my husband a receipt for the phone.”

Shortly after, the authorities took Inzhu’s husband away to a political education camp, according to HRW.

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