A new analysis of an app used by Chinese officials in the far west region of Xinjiang, where Turkic Muslim minorities are being closely tracked and sent to detention centers en masse, suggests Chinese authorities are indiscriminately collecting huge volumes of information about people in the region.
Along with Berlin-based security firm Cure53, Human Rights Watch reverse engineered the app, which is associated with a data collection and analysis system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), and found that it enables police and other authorities in Xinjiang to collect and file away personal information about people, including behavior considered suspicious, and flag them for future investigations.
“The IJOP is unique," said Maya Wang, the senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch. "It’s the heart of the mass surveillance system in Xinjiang."
“It’s the system of systems," she added.
Upward of a million people, including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslims, have passed through mass internment camps in Xinjiang, where detainees are held without charge, taught Chinese, compelled to sing patriotic songs and learn Chinese Communist Party doctrine, and subjected to a wide range of abuses from food deprivation to being held in stress positions, according to many witness accounts.
The IJOP platform tracks people’s travel patterns, their electricity and petrol use, as well as religious activity like preaching or donating to mosques, Human Rights Watch found. The IJOP also prompts police to check for apps deemed suspicious including messaging apps popular outside China, such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram.
Based on these and many other criteria, the app spits out lists of people who are candidates for detention — suggesting there is a direct link between Xinjiang’s complex surveillance apparatus and the mass internment of Muslim minorities.
The app essentially provides an interface for authorities to share information about residents’ behavior and personal traits in many different aspects of their lives.
The app, the first version of which was released in December 2016, was once publicly available but was taken off app stores last year. HRW downloaded the app before it disappeared.
HRW’s analysis comes as China comes under increasing scrutiny from foreign governments, UN officials, and human rights advocates over its treatment of ethnic minorities. Critics say Beijing’s heavy-handed use of surveillance technologies, from facial recognition cameras to big data analysis, has turned Xinjiang into a virtual open-air prison.
It flags any deviations from “normal” behavior as “micro-clues,” the report says, like a person who leaves the area of their residence without getting police permission, or using a phone with a SIM card not registered to them. It even tracks their package deliveries, Wang said.
The app instructs police to investigate people who have links to foreign countries or who have set up a new phone number, HRW found. Uighur exiles have reported that making phone calls abroad or having relatives who have lived abroad, especially in Muslim-majority countries, has sparked additional scrutiny from authorities, resulting in detention or internment. In some situations, the official is even prompted to categorize people as one of 36 “problematic” types from a drop-down menu.
It is unclear how the IJOP fits into other surveillance programs in China, particularly those outside of Xinjiang. But the system works to combine and analyze data from many different sources.
“This is a policing variant that comes from the military,” Wang said. “It pools information from many different places to keep authorities aware of what’s going on, and it’s about mobilizing forces in places in response to an incident. It’s the migration of military doctrine for a civilian setting.”
Xinjiang has been beset by bouts of ethnic violence, including deadly riots as well as knife and bomb attacks targeting ethnic Han Chinese people that the government says were carried out by Uighur separatist militants. The government says the measures it has taken in the region serve to combat extremism. Critics say it amounts to a form of collective punishment of millions of people based primarily on their ethnicity and religious practices.
The app also appears to be an outlet for transmitting answers to regular interrogations of Turkic Muslims by police and other authorities, including about personal religious practices, family dynamics, and other personal subjects.
Human Rights Watch says the IJOP system gathers information from surveillance cameras, Wi-Fi sniffers, and other sources. The analysis of the app found the system could track people’s locations and could even warn police about individuals deemed troublesome in real time.
Complying with the IJOP system could be burdensome to government officials too, especially those from ethnic minority groups, who could be targeted for internment themselves if they are deemed disloyal.
“The IJOP system is generating a massive dataset of personal information, and of police behavior and movements in Xinjiang,” the report says. “Yet it is not known how the authorities plan to use such data.”
The HRW report said the app used facial recognition tech made by Face++, but a subsequent correction issued weeks later found the code in the app was inoperable.
This post has been updated to reflect new information from Human Rights Watch indicating that the Face++ code discovered in a version of the IJOP app was inoperable.