Chinese Regime Tracks Roughly 2.5 Million in Xinjiang Through Facial Recognition

By Cathy He
Cathy He
Cathy He
China Reporter
Cathy He is a New York-based reporter focusing on China-related topics. She previously worked as a government lawyer in Australia. She joined the Epoch Times in February 2018.
February 18, 2019 Updated: February 20, 2019

The Chinese regime is tracking the movements of more than 2.5 million people in Xinjiang, a region where Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are under heavy state surveillance, according to a data leak flagged by a Dutch cyber expert.

SenseNets Technology, a Shenzhen-based tech company that develops facial recognition software, collected about 6.7 million GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates in a 24-hour period through its surveillance camera system, according to Victor Gevers, co-founder of the cyber security nonprofit GDI.Foundation.

Gevers first noted the vulnerability in a series of online posts on his Twitter account on Feb. 13.

The location data points were linked to names, ID card numbers, birth dates, addresses, photos, and employers, and were also tagged with descriptions such as “mosque,” “hotel,” “internet cafe,” and other places where surveillance cameras were likely to be found.

“This insecure face recognition/personal verification solution is built and operated for only one goal,” Gevers wrote on Twitter. “It’s a ‘Muslim tracker’ funded by Chinese authorities.”

The information was stored on a SenseNets database that was accessible for months and was uncovered by Gevers.

“It was fully open and anyone without authentication had full administrative rights. You could go in the database and create, read, update, and delete anything,” said Gevers.

According to its website, SenseNets is a contractor for China’s police across several cities. Its Shenzhen-listed parent company, NetPosa Technologies, has offices in a majority of Chinese provinces and regions, including Xinjiang.

Gevers said the foundation directly alerted SenseNets to the vulnerability, in line with GDI.Foundation protocol. He said SenseNets didn’t respond, but it’s since taken steps to secure the database, as he can no longer access it.

Mass Surveillance

The Chinese regime, in recent years, has detained an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in internment camps in its northwest Xinjiang region, where they undergo political indoctrination and are forced to denounce their faith. Former detainees have reported cases of torture, forced medication, and rape.

Louisa Greve, director of external affairs at Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Uyghur Human Rights Project, said in an email that the data leak was “proof of the breathtaking scale, and the government’s use of the Uyghur homeland as a laboratory of repression.”

Beyond the camps, more than 10 million Uyghur and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang are subject to monitoring via a dense network of surveillance systems and security checkpoints, where their electronic ID cards are scanned.

The region has served as a testing ground for sophisticated forms of mass surveillance and control, made possible by the newest developments in digital technology.

Advanced facial recognition software allows police authorities to track the movements of just about every person through an extensive system of security cameras. There have also been reports of Chinese authorities collecting blood and saliva samples from Xinjiang residents for storage in state DNA databases, as well as fingerprints and voice samples.

In 2017, authorities forced residents to download a surveillance app called Jingwang Weishi, which translates to “defender of a clean internet” in Chinese. Researchers from the Open Technology Fund, a U.S. government-funded program, found that the app transfers all files on the smartphone for government monitoring.

The communist regime has used the pretext of “extremist threats” to justify its tight control of the region.

The Trump administration is reportedly considering sanctions against Chinese officials and companies involved in human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Last year, the U.S. Congress banned government agencies from buying surveillance products made by Hikvision, China’s leading manufacturer of surveillance cameras. Hikvision has collaborated deeply with Beijing to develop AI-enhanced technology for monitoring its citizens, including in Xinjiang.

U.S. companies have also been called out for assisting the regime in building surveillance infrastructure that can be used for repression. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), at a congressional hearing last July, criticized Google for opening an AI research center in China, and Thermo Fisher Scientific for supplying DNA-sequencing equipment to Xinjiang police.

Reuters and Epoch Times staff member Annie Wu contributed to this report. 

Cathy He
Cathy He
China Reporter
Cathy He is a New York-based reporter focusing on China-related topics. She previously worked as a government lawyer in Australia. She joined the Epoch Times in February 2018.