Report: China’s use of Massive Surveillance Targets Uyghurs
Chinese authorities are using a phone search program to target and intimidate the Uyghur Muslim minority and other Muslim residents in the Xinjiang region, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The program, which allows authorities to remotely access text messages, photos, and contacts from phones in the region, is being exploited to oppress the Uyghurs on a massive scale.
The police in Xinjiang rely on a master list of 50,000 multimedia files that they consider “violent and terrorist.” HRW said it conducted a forensic investigation into the metadata of the list and found that police conducted almost 11 million searches of 1.2 million mobile phones between 2017 and 2018 in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang.
The investigation found that 57% of the matched files contained common Islamic religious materials, raising concerns about the Chinese government’s approach to countering what it calls “terrorism” and “extremism.”
China’s counterterrorism law defines these terms in excessively broad and vague terms, which facilitate prosecutions and other restrictions on those who do not intend to cause harm.
Since 2014, the Chinese government has been conducting its "Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism," which has significantly escalated since 2017.
The use of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, policing apps, and big-data systems, has facilitated the targeting of individuals flagged as potentially “untrustworthy” by using broad and arbitrary criteria.
For instance, using too much electricity can trigger this flagging, and the individual's name is then sent to the police.
Officers then interrogate and detain these individuals in political education camps or sentence them to prison terms following perfunctory, closed trials without access to lawyers.
The use of mass collection of biometric data from Turkic Muslims, along with the integration of their contacts, location, financial accounts, and internet accounts, allows the police to monitor every resident of Urumqi.
Testimonies from Uyghurs reveal that the detention facilities are horrendous.
One Uyghur interviewee reported that a 60-year-old man was detained for six years for sending an audio file of an Islamic religious teaching to his daughter, who passed it to a friend. The father and daughter were sentenced to six and three years in prison, respectively, and alleged that detainees in these facilities were tortured.
According to HRW’s estimation, “as of September 2022, half-million people remained in prison following the crackdown.”
The right to freedom of expression and thought, including holding views considered offensive, is guaranteed under international law, which has been signed also by China, and the criminalisation of mere possession of material deemed extremist is a severe threat to these rights.
This report is the latest in a series of allegations concerning human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. These have included claims of forced labor, mass internment, and sterilization.