Database Entry: How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities
Surveillance Use of technology Restrictions on movement

How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities

May 22, 2019
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A God’s-eye view of Kashgar, an ancient city in western China, flashed onto a wall-size screen, with colorful icons marking police stations, checkpoints and the locations of recent security incidents. At the click of a mouse, a technician explained, the police can pull up live video from any surveillance camera or take a closer look at anyone passing through one of the thousands of checkpoints in the city. To demonstrate, she showed how the system could retrieve the photo, home address and official identification number of a woman who had been stopped at a checkpoint on a major highway. The system sifted through billions of records, then displayed details of her education, family ties, links to an earlier case and recent visits to a hotel and an internet cafe. The simulation, presented at an industry fair in China, offered a rare look at a system that now peers into nearly every corner of Xinjiang, the troubled region where Kashgar is located.

Treating a city like a battlefield, the platform was designed to “apply the ideas of military cyber systems to civilian public security,” Wang Pengda, a C.E.T.C. engineer, said in an official blog post. “Looking back, it truly was an idea ahead of its time.” The system taps into networks of neighborhood informants; tracks individuals and analyzes their behavior; tries to anticipate potential crime, protest or violence; and then recommends which security forces to deploy, the company said. On the screen during the demonstration was a slogan: “If someone exists, there will be traces, and if there are connections, there will be information.”

A New York Times investigation drawing on government and company records as well as interviews with industry insiders found that China is in effect hard-wiring Xinjiang for segregated surveillance, using an army of security personnel to compel ethnic minorities to submit to monitoring and data collection while generally ignoring the majority Han Chinese, who make up 36 percent of Xinjiang’s population.

In the city of Kashgar, with a population of 720,000 — about 85 percent of them Uighur — the C.E.T.C. platform draws on databases with 68 billion records, including those on people’s movements and activities, according to the demonstration viewed by a Times reporter at the industry fair, held in the eastern city of Wuzhen in late 2017.

By comparison, the F.B.I.’s national instant criminal background check system contained about 19 million records at the end of 2018.

The app, which the Times examined, also allows police officers to flag people they believe have stopped using a smartphone, have begun avoiding the use of the front door in coming and going from home, or have refueled someone else’s car.

The police use the app at checkpoints that serve as virtual “fences” across Xinjiang. If someone is tagged as a potential threat, the system can be set to trigger an alarm every time he or she tries to leave the neighborhood or enters a public place, Human Rights Watch said.

The multilayered program to harvest information from Uighurs and other Muslims begins on the edges of towns and cities across Xinjiang in buildings that look like toll plazas.

Instead of coins, they collect personal information.

On a recent visit to one checkpoint in Kashgar, a line of passengers and drivers, nearly all Uighur, got out of their vehicles, trudged through automated gates made by C.E.T.C. and swiped their identity cards.

“Head up,” the machines chimed as they photographed the motorists and armed guards looked on.

There are smaller checkpoints at banks, parks, schools, gas stations and mosques, all recording information from identity cards in the mass surveillance database.

Identification cards are also needed to buy knives, gasoline, phones, computers and even sugar. The purchases are entered into a police database used to flag suspicious behavior or individuals, according to a 2017 dissertation by a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences that features screenshots of the system in Kashgar.

Not everyone has to endure the inconvenience. At many checkpoints, privileged groups — Han Chinese, Uighur officials with passes, and foreign visitors — are waved through “green channels.” In this way, the authorities have created separate yet overlapping worlds on the same streets — and in the online police databases — one for Muslim minorities, the other for Han Chinese.

“The goal here is instilling fear — fear that their surveillance technology can see into every corner of your life,” said Wang Lixiong, a Chinese author who has written about Xinjiang as well as China’s surveillance state. “The amount of people and equipment used for security is part of the deterrent effect.”

A database stored online by SenseNets, a Chinese surveillance company, and examined by the Times suggests the scale of surveillance in Xinjiang: It contained facial recognition records and ID scans for about 2.5 million people, mostly in Urumqi, a city with a population of about 3.5 million.

The authorities in Xinjiang also sometimes force residents to install an app known as “Clean Net Guard” on their phones to monitor for content that the government deems suspicious.

These databases are not yet completely integrated, and despite the futuristic gloss of the Xinjiang surveillance state, the authorities rely on hundreds of thousands of police officers, officials and neighborhood monitors to gather and enter data.

A technician who until recently installed and maintained computers for the authorities in Xinjiang said police surveillance centers relied on hundreds of workers to monitor cameras, an expensive and inefficient undertaking.

And outside urban centers, police officers often do not have the skills to operate the sophisticated systems, said the technician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions for speaking to a journalist.

“Preserving stability is a hard-and-fast task that takes priority over everything else,” the leadership said in the region’s annual budget report. “Use every possible means to find funds so that the high-pressure offensive does not let up.”

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