The Current

Chinese police app 'illegally' tracks ethnic Uighurs' everyday lives, says Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch says it has proof of a massive system of state surveillance in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, and that it's being used to target the country's Uighur minority. The advocacy group says there's even an app used by police to log the minute details of an individual's movements, and build cases for detention.

'Information about legal behaviour is being gathered illegally and used to illegally detain people'

A demonstrator wearing a mask painted with the colours of the flag of East Turkestan and a hand bearing the colours of the Chinese flag in protest of China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story transcript

Human Right Watch says it has found evidence that Chinese police are using an app to "illegally" surveil, target and detain members of the country's Uighur ethnic minority.

"What we revealed were 36 different categories of behaviour which ranged any anywhere from how much electricity you were using, to whether you were talking to your neighbours more or less than you had in the past, to whether you were raising money for your local mosque," said Sophie Richardson, China director with Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW reports the app, known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, is used by Chinese authorities to collect and store data about the Uighurs, a Turkic people who primarily practice Islam.

"We downloaded it and reverse-engineered it to look at the source code, which is a pretty telling way of understanding what a state's intent is," she told The Current's guest host David Common.

This information is fed into the app through several channels, she said, including electricity metres, phone activity, facial recognition software and WiFi data interception software.

Richardson explained that all of this collected data is used to measure whether an individual is behaving "abnormally," which offers justification for police to visit, question and potentially detain the person.

Human Rights Watch reports the findings of their latest investigation:

Uighurs live mainly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.

They're an officially-recognized ethnic minority in China, and are regularly subject to detention and mistreatment by the Chinese government, according to previous reports by Human Rights Watch and the UN.

"There are real consequences to how this technology is being used, and many people are unaware of the volume or the nature of the data that's being collected," Richardson cautioned.

"The overwhelming majority of the information that that police are using to make determinations about detention are about perfectly legal, protected behaviour. So information about legal behaviour is being gathered illegally and used to illegally detain people."

Mehmet Tohti, Uighur-Canadian and activist, left Xinjiang in 1991. His family is still there, but he hasn't been able to speak to any of them in years. 1:04

China dismisses 'absurd claims' as 'not even worth refuting'

The Current requested comment from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Canada. Their emailed response reads:

"The so-called Human Rights Watch you mentioned, with its entrenched political bias against China, has been denigrating China's human rights situation in its reports for many years. Its absurd claims are not even worth refuting.

"The practices you mentioned of collecting citizen's personal information, as far as I know, are commonly used in the United States, Britain and other Western countries, otherwise how can they track terrorists? You'd better turn to Human Rights Watch to ask these Western countries."

To discuss the implications of Human Rights Watch's new report about the surveillance in Xinxiang, Common spoke to:

  • Sophie Richardson, the China director with Human Rights Watch.
  • Lindsay Gorman, Fellow for Emerging Technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
  • Mehmet Tohti, Uighur-Canadian and activist, working as the Canadian representative with World Uighur Congress.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 

Produced by Alison Masemann, John Chipman and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.   


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