The Xinjiang Data Project

Explainers

How mass surveillance works in Xinjiang

Reverse engineering the police mass surveillance app

In early 2018, Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a mass surveillance app used by police in Xinjiang, in northwest China. Human Rights Watch “reverse engineered” the app, revealing the types of personal information and behaviour considered “suspicious” that has people flagged for further investigation and sometimes for detention in the camps.
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Human Rights Watch
May 2019
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This report provides a detailed description and analysis of a mobile app that police and other officials use to communicate with the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP, 一体化联合作战平台), one of the main systems Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance in Xinjiang.

The program aggregates data about people and flags to officials those it deems potentially threatening.

Some of those targeted are detained and sent to political education camps and other facilities.

Officials use the IJOP app to fulfil three broad functions:

Collecting personal information;

Reporting on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious; 

Prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

The Human Rights Watch analysis of the IJOP app reveals that authorities are collecting massive amounts of personal information—from the color of a person’s car to their height down to the precise centimeter—and feeding it into the IJOP central system, linking that data to the person’s national identification card number.

The analysis reveals Xinjiang authorities consider many forms of lawful, everyday, non-violent behavior—such as “not socializing with neighbors, often avoiding using the front door,” or using encrypted communication tools such as WhatsApp —as suspicious.

The IJOP app demonstrates that Chinese authorities consider certain peaceful religious activities suspicious, such as donating to mosques or preaching the Quran without authorization. But most of the other behavior the app considers problematic are ethnic-and religion-neutral.

Types of personal information collected and stored on the IJOP App
Human Rights Watch, 2019
SOURCE

The IJOP system appears to surveil and collect data on everyone in Xinjiang.

The system is tracking the movement of people by monitoring the “trajectory” and location data of their phones, ID cards, and vehicles. It is also monitoring the use of electricity and gas stations of everybody in the region.

When the IJOP system detects irregularities or deviations from what it considers normal, such as when people are using a phone that is not registered to them, when they use more electricity than “normal,” or when they leave the area in which they are registered to live without police permission, the system flags these “micro-clues” to the authorities as suspicious and prompts an investigation.

Another key element of IJOP system is the monitoring of personal relationships. For example, the IJOP app instructs officers to investigate people who are related to people who have obtained a new phone number or who have foreign links.

The app also scores government officials on their performance in fulfilling tasks and is a tool for higher-level supervisors to assign tasks to, and keep tabs on the performance of, lower-level officials.

The IJOP app does not require government officials to inform the people whose daily lives are pored over and logged the purpose of such intrusive data collection or how their information is being used or stored, much less obtain consent for such data collection.

A checkpoint in Turpan, Xinjiang. Some of Xinjiang’s checkpoints are equipped with special machines that, in addition to recognizing people through their ID cards or facial recognition, are also vacuuming up people’s identifying information from their electronic devices.
Darren Byler, 2018
SOURCE

The authorities have sought to justify mass surveillance in Xinjiang as a means to fight terrorism.  While the app instructs officials to check for “terrorism” and “violent audio-visual content” when conducting phone and software checks, these terms are broadly defined under Chinese laws.

It also instructs officials to watch out for “adherents of Wahhabism,” a term suggesting an ultra-conservative form of Islamic belief, and “families of those…who detonated [devices] and killed themselves.”

But many—if not most—behaviors the IJOP system pays special attention to have no clear relationship to terrorism or extremism.

The HRW analysis of the IJOP system suggests that gathering information to counter genuine terrorism or extremist violence is not a central goal of the system.

CETC’s “three-dimensional portrait and integrated data doors” – special machines that are used in some of Xinjiang’s checkpoints to vacuum up people’s identifying information from their electronic devices. This is placed at the entrance to the Aq Mosque, in Urumqi, 2018.
Joanne Smith Finley, 2018
SOURCE

People deemed suspicious by the IJOP system are subjected to police interrogation without basic procedural protections. They have no right to legal counsel, and some are subjected to torture and mistreatment, for which they have no effective redress.

The result is Chinese authorities, bolstered by technology, arbitrarily and indefinitely detaining Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang en masse for actions and behavior that are not crimes under Chinese law.

The IJOP system is central to a larger ecosystem of social monitoring and control in the region. They also shed light on how mass surveillance functions in China.

While Xinjiang’s systems are particularly intrusive, their basic designs are similar to those the police are planning and implementing throughout China.

Many—perhaps all—of the mass surveillance practices described in this report appear to be contrary to Chinese law.

They violate the internationally guaranteed rights to privacy, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to freedom of association and movement. Their impact on other rights, such as freedom of expression and religion, is profound.

This research summary is produced with permission from Human Rights Watch. All images and video from the report also reproduced with permission.

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