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‘Police cloud’: Chinese database tracks apps, car location and even electricity usage in Muslim region

Police patrol near a building mounted with surveillance cameras in Peyzawat, in western China's Xinjiang region, in August. The area has been blanketed with police checkpoints and cameras. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Chinese authorities in the western Xinjiang province are building a comprehensive database that tracks the movements, mobile app usage and even electricity and gasoline consumption of people in the heavily Muslim region, a U.S. rights group said Thursday.

The apparent technology-driven controls by Beijing, outlined in a report by Human Rights Watch, are part of wider crackdowns in Xinjiang that include the internment of an estimated 1 million Muslim citizens and far-reaching electronic surveillance.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday it gained a new level of insight into precisely what information the Chinese government collects by examining a mobile app that Xinjiang officials use to input data into a database called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP.

The IJOP system, which keeps track of practically the entire Xinjiang population, alerts authorities when a person unexpectedly crosses virtual “fences” by driving past a certain checkpoint or checking into a hotel, according to the rights group. It tracks citizens’ smartphones, their national identification cards and GPS devices on their vehicles, which have been widely installed under new government regulations.

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After denying the detention centers’ existence for a year, Chinese authorities have recently argued that Xinjiang’s network of detention centers are built for educating and de-radicalizing a Muslim population that became increasingly influenced by extremist Islamist ideology.

International rights groups and Western countries say the limited extremist threat does not warrant the vast scale of the internments, a suffocating surveillance regime and a law enforcement approach that punishes seemingly lawful behavior or standard religious practice.

Although the broad outlines of Xinjiang’s surveillance effort was previously known, the Human Rights Watch report provided technical proof of Chinese authorities tracking a litany of lawful behavior.

The IJOP system tracked, for instance, whether a person’s phone was turned off for a long time and whether a car’s owner or different person was filling up at a gas station, said Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang, the report’s author.

People who avoided use of their front door would raise alarms, as would people who avoided socializing with their neighbors or raised unusual amounts of money for a mosque, Wang’s analysis found. All told, Wang found that the Xinjiang database kept logs of 36 types of behavior seen as suspicious and that a total of 51 mobile apps were blacklisted — including WhatsApp, Telegram and virtual private networks.

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The Xinjiang model could be a testing ground for the rest of China, where law enforcement authorities are building a national “Police Cloud,” Wang said.

But the Xinjiang example also carries profound global implications in an era of big data, artificial intelligence and high-tech policing.

“This is not just about Xinjiang or even China — it’s about the world beyond and whether we human beings can continue to have freedom in a world of connected devices,” Wang said. “It’s a wake-up call, not just about China but about every one of us.”

The app analyzed by Human Rights Watch was created by China Electronics Technology Group, a government contractor that also produces facial-recognition machines and identification-card scanners widely deployed in Xinjiang. It was publicly available for download at one point, Human Rights Watch said.

State-owned Chinese contractors and private start-ups have been making significant advances in facial- and gait-recognition technologies that are being increasingly deployed in China’s airports, train stations and hotels.

U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have called on the Trump administration to levy sanctions against Chinese manufacturers of surveillance equipment and restrict their access to U.S. financial markets.

The United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Turkey are among dozens of governments that have criticized the crackdown in Xinjiang.

In March, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was pressing for full access to Xinjiang to conduct an independent investigation of reports of “wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions,” but an agreement has not been reached with Beijing on a U.N. visit.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres raised the issue again with top Chinese officials in Beijing this week, a spokesman in Geneva said Monday.

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