It’s long been known that China is developing a dystopian surveillance system in Xinjiang, the Northwest province that’s home to China’s Uyghur Muslim population. Among the evidence includes a poorly managed database, and now we have details of a mobile app used by police in the region to track Uyghur citizens.
Human Rights Watch today published a detailed report into Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), the system used to surveil the population of Xinjiang. The organization got hold of an IJOP app and reverse engineered it to shed light on the kind of data that is being sucked up about Uyghur people.
The details gathered vary from obvious information like name, height and blood type, to information on whether a person uses a VPN or specific apps — chat services like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram — whether they leave their house via the backdoor, how much electricity they use and more.
The system pairs data entered by officers on the ground — both roaming and at specific checkpoints — with information pulled by a mesh of surveillance cameras to root out apparent suspicious people. China is reported to have locked up around one million Uyghur in so-called “re-education” camps and this system, and in turn app, play a major role in that selection process.
If there’s any consolation here, it’s that China’s system isn’t particularly cutting-edge or efficient. The app, for example, relies heavily on manual input from officers, while alerts to check on “suspicious” individuals requires an officer to be dispatched to their home, place of work, etc.
“It’s important to note that this system, though intrusive, is also crude and labor-intensive. I don’t think they are very sophisticated, and they require a huge number of police and resources to operate,” noted Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Maya Wang in the report.
Still, in spite of inefficiencies, the intention of the state is enough to cause havoc. China’s operation in Xinjiang is breaking up families by disappearing people and installing fear in those who remain. More widely, the clampdown has seen Muslim architecture and culture destroyed in what is a devastating and under-reported onslaught against an ethnic group.
Human Rights Watch added its voice, once again, to those calling for international intervention.
“Concerned governments need to think seriously about export controls and targeted sanctions, such as the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act, including visa bans and asset freezes, against senior Chinese officials linked to abuses in Xinjiang. They should set the bar higher on privacy protections so that companies like the one that produced this app don’t succeed in setting the standards,” wrote Wang.