A surveillance app used by Chinese authorities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang designates 36 types of people who may be tagged for investigation and sent to internment camps as part of the regime’s suppression of Turkic Muslims in the region, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
In a report published May 1, Human Rights Watch analyzed a mobile app used by Xinjiang authorities to collect personal information from Uyghur Muslims and other Muslim minorities, file reports on activities they find suspicious, and carry out investigations on people the system flags as problematic.
The app is linked to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), one of the main systems the regime uses for mass surveillance in the region. According to the report, the IJOP system surveils and collects data on the millions of Xinjiang residents through CCTV cameras, some of which have facial recognition or night-vision capabilities, a vast network of checkpoints, and through “Wi-Fi sniffers,” which collect unique identifying addresses of computers, and smartphones.
With data mined in this system, the IJOP can then identify “problematic” people for investigation and detention in the region’s sprawling network of internment camps, the report said.
The U.S. State Department and rights groups estimate that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being detained in such camps, where they are forced to undergo political indoctrination and renounce their faith. Former detainees have recounted torture, abuse, and rape in the facilities.
The Chinese regime has justified the detention and mass surveillance using the pretext of combating terrorism.
The rights organization said it was able to reverse-engineer the IJOP app to allow it to examine the type of personal information it collects, and identify the kinds of behavior and people the authorities target.
The app collects a wide range of personal information, including a person’s blood type, height “down to the precise centimeter,” and the color and make of their car, the report said. The information then is fed into the IJOP system and linked to the person’s national identification card number.
The report also found that the app identifies 36 types of people considered “suspicious.” These include seemingly innocuous behavior such as “returned from abroad,” “does not socialize with neighbors,” “seldom uses front door,” “collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm,” or “household uses an abnormal amount of electricity.”
The app also alerts authorities to carry out “investigative missions” into people flagged as problematic, which involves gathering even more personal information.
During one such mission, an official may be required, for example, to check the person’s phone and log whether they use any of the 51 “suspicious” internet tools, including Virtual Private Networks, and foreign messaging apps such as Viber, WhatsApp, and Telegram.
“In Xinjiang, authorities have created a system that considers individuals suspicious based on broad and dubious criteria, and then generates lists of people to be evaluated by officials for detention,” the report said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed several Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities who shared their experience being monitored by the IJOP platform.
A former detainee identified only as Ehmet was released in 2017, but soon found out that he was banned from leaving his local area. “When I tried going out of the region, my ID would [make a sound] at police checkpoints….I was blacklisted.”
Alim was released from a police detention center after spending several weeks there on charges of “disturbing social order.” Alim told Human Rights Watch that while visiting a mall, a nearby alarm went off. The police escorted him to the local police station right away. “The police told me: ‘Just don’t go to any public places.’”
For Nur, his status as a foreign national upon fleeing Xinjiang means his family members back home are also implicated: “[My family] said their ID cards have been making noise when going through the checkpoints ever since I was taken away [by police].”
The IJOP platform is itself against the Chinese constitution and laws. The constitution guarantees people’s “privacy of correspondence,” while laws stipulate that only criminal investigators can collect suspects’ DNA samples and phone numbers upon obtaining a “search warrant.”