Updated: March 2, 2021
A big data program for policing in China’s Xinjiang region arbitrarily selects Turkic Muslims for possible detention, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday. A leaked list of over 2,000 detainees from Aksu prefecture provided to Human Rights Watch is further evidence of China’s use of technology in its repression of the Muslim population.
The big data program, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), apparently flagged the people on the Aksu List, whom officials then evaluated and sent to “political education” camps in Xinjiang.
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“The Aksu List provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: why were they detained, and where are they now?”
Human Rights Watch first reported on the IJOP in February 2018, noting that the policing program aggregates data about people from various sensory systems in Xinjiang, and flags to officials those it deems potentially threatening. Officials then evaluate these individuals’ “general performance” together with other sources of information, and send some to political education camps and other facilities. Human Rights Watch “reverse engineered” the IJOP mobile app in May 2019 and revealed the dubious criteria this mass surveillance system was programmed to flag, including many lawful behaviors.
The Aksu List, dated around late 2018, is similar to another leaked file, the Karakax List. That list–of people detained for having relatives abroad–dated around June 2019, provides an assessment of whether an individual should remain in detention. The IJOP is also repeatedly mentioned in the Karakax List. Together the lists provide two snapshots of Xinjiang’s bureaucracy, as it picks and vets its victims in the process of coerced thought transformation: the decision to detain people and the decision to keep them in detention. At both stages, the IJOP system assists officials in selecting targets.
The entry for “Ms. T” on the Aksu List illustrates how the program’s algorithms identify legal behaviors as grounds for detention. It notes that she was detained because the IJOP system had flagged her for “links to sensitive countries.” It reported that Ms. T had received four calls from a foreign number in March 2017, down to the number of seconds. In other words, the IJOP system is programed to pick out particular behavior, calls to a foreign number, noting the precise duration of the calls. Human Rights Watch called that number and found that it belongs to Ms. T’s sister.
Ms. T’s sister said that Xinjiang police interrogated Ms. T around the time the Aksu List recorded her detention date. The police had specifically asked about her sister because she lives abroad. Ms. T’s sister said she has had no direct contact with her family in Xinjiang since then, but heard via an intermediary that Ms. T—presumably upon her release from a political education camp—was now working in a factory five days a week and allowed to go home only on weekends. Ms. T’s sister believes Ms. T is being forced to work in a factory against her will, noting that Ms. T had been training for a different career before she was detained.
Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the Aksu List strongly suggests that the vast majority of the people flagged by the IJOP system are detained for everyday lawful, non-violent behavior. This contradicts the Chinese authorities’ claims that their “sophisticated,” “predictive” technologies, like the IJOP, are keeping Xinjiang safe by “targeting” criminals “with precision.”
The mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims violate fundamental rights under China’s constitution and international human rights law. Article 37 of the constitution states that all arrests must be approved by either the procuratorate (the state prosecution agency) or the courts.
Yet Human Rights Watch research indicates that neither agency appears to be involved in these detentions. Rather, administrative officials, including police officers, make the sole decision to detain someone. Those facing detention have no right to due process, including access to lawyers and family members, or a chance to stand trial to contest such allegations. The use of intrusive surveillance, including in and around people’s homes, also violates everyone’s right to privacy.
“‘Predictive policing’ platforms are really just a pseudo-scientific fig leaf for the Chinese government to justify vast repression of Turkic Muslims,” Wang said. “The Chinese government should immediately shut down the IJOP, delete all the data it has collected, and release everyone arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.”