Uyghur people in Xinjiang market

Big Data used to identify suspected criminals and political dissidents in China, says report

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According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have been detaining suspects flagged up by predictive software running on big data to detect unusual activity.

In March 2016, a branch of China Electronics Technology Group announced that it would be collaborating with the government of the Xinjiang region in order to collate data relating to citizens’ backgrounds and behaviour, and flagging up suspicious activity – such as unusually high domestic electricity use – to the authorities in an effort to prevent terrorism.

Xinjiang, a large, autonomous region in the north west of China, contains disputed territory and in the past decades, and been affected by ongoing conflict between the Han Chinese majority and the Muslim Uyghur minority, with occasional terrorist attacks.

According to HRW, Chinese authorities have imposed civil restrictions on Uyghurs, such as restrictions on what type of beard of clothing they may wear, or what they may name their children.

According to HRW, while it is not certain that this automated system explicitly targets Uyghurs, citizens have been required to fill in forms which detail their religious affiliation and practices. Often data is collected about individuals without their knowledge.

This system, the “Integrated Joint Operations Platforms”, uses data from CCTV cameras – which may use facial recognition and night vision – health, legal and banking records, security checkpoints and Wi-Fi connections via “Wi-Fi sniffers”. Suspects identified by the system may receive follow-up face-to-face visits from officers to their family homes, HRW reports.

It is unknown exactly how the system generates these lists of suspects using the information provided.

“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at HRW.

“People in Xinjiang can’t resist or challenge the increasingly intrusive scrutiny of their daily lives because most don’t even know about this ‘black box’ program or how it works.”

According to HRW, citing official announcements and anonymous sources in the area, some suspects identified by the system have been detained or sent to extralegal “political education centres” where they may be held indefinitely without charge. Two sources told HRW that they had watched the system generate lists of individuals to be rounded up by the police.

A similar predictive security system based on big data is being expanded in other regions of China, although surveillance is particularly heavy in Xinjiang, home of the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign which is claimed to target “terrorist elements”, but may in fact affect citizens suspected of disloyalty to the ruling Communist Party. HRW estimates that since April 2016, tens of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in political education centres.

Official reporting on the system has states that it has assisted in the identification of petty criminals and Uighur leaders, and has passed on information to police, Communist Party and government officials for investigation.

“If the Chinese government’s goal is to prevent bona fide crimes, it could train police and procurators in professional, rights-respecting methods, and empower defence lawyers,” said Wang. “Arbitrary mass surveillance and detention are Orwellian political tools.”

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