Chinese Regime Uses ‘Big Data’ Surveillance to Detain Xinjiang Residents, According to Human Rights Watch

February 27, 2018Updated: February 27, 2018

BEIJING—Chinese authorities in the far western region of Xinjiang are detaining suspects flagged by predictive software that combines data on everything from security camera footage to health and banking records, U.S.-based research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

A subsidiary of the state-owned tech firm, China Electronics Technology Group, announced in 2016 that it would start working with the Xinjiang authorities to combat extremism by collecting data on the behavior of citizens and flagging unusual activity to the authorities.

Some people targeted by the system have been detained or sent to “political education centers” as part of the region’s security campaign, according to the HRW report, which cites official announcements and two unidentified sources who have seen the program in operation.

“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, a Hong Kong-based researcher at HRW.

Reuters was unable to independently verify HRW’s claims. Neither the Xinjiang authorities nor China’s Ministry of Public Security responded to requests for comment.

A similar design of predictive security software is also being rolled out in other regions of China but surveillance is more intrusive in Xinjiang and there are fewer protections for suspects due to the authorities’ concerns about unrest, she said.

Waves of violence have rocked Xinjiang in recent years. Tensions between Han Chinese and the mostly Muslim Uyghurs who call the region home, along with the authorities’ iron-fisted suppression, have led to unrest and protests.

Wang said that while it was unclear whether the system explicitly targeted Uyghurs, the program has gathered information about residents’ religious practice and overseas travel.

The “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” flags people of interest to the police for investigation by crunching data from CCTV cameras, ID card checks, and WiFi connections of phones and computers, in addition to health, banking, and legal records.

Police are then expected to follow up with measures including face-to-face visits within a day, according to state media reports. The exact algorithm for weighting the various factors was unclear.

Reporting by Christian Shepherd. Annie Wu of The Epoch Times contributed to this report.