China’s New Policing App Tracks Your Electricity Use, Religious Beliefs and Which Door You Use 

Published May 2nd, 2019 - 11:14 GMT
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14th China International Exhibition on Public Safety and Security at the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing on October 24, 2018 (AFP/FILE)

The inner-workings of a Chinese state app used to surveil and track millions of Uyghur Muslims has been made public.


Human Rights Watch, together with a team of engineers, reverse-engineered the main app of China’s Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP); a centralized system of surveillance aimed at populations that China deems suspicious.

The app is meant to be used by police officers and investigators, who can find a vast array of personal information about individuals; their beliefs, their daily routines and their subtle behavior patterns, and use it to investigate them. The app tracks their electricity usage, which door they use to leave their house, how they practice their faith and when they travel. If someone acts in a manner the app finds unbecoming, then it alerts a police officer to investigate.

The app tracks their electricity usage, which door they use to leave their house, how they practice their faith and when they travel. If someone acts in a manner the app finds unbecoming, then it alerts a police officer to investigate.

Much of the data collected in the database feeding the app comes from networks of high-tech surveillance cameras armed with facial recognition, a massive grid of police checkpoints, informants and constant interrogations with police.

The IJOP app is a testament to how pervasive policing of ethno-religious minorities in China has become. The main target of these surveillance methods is invariably China’s 13 million Uyghur Muslims, who live in a virtual state of lockdown in the northwest region of Xinjiang. Up to a million of them are reportedly detained in political re-education camps that some describe as concentration camps.

The app apparently facilitates this systemic detainment, a process decried around the world but is nevertheless ongoing and ever-expanding.

 

The IJOP App Deems You Suspicious 

The IJOP app, which experts from Human Rights Watch (HRW) downloaded through an app store, functions as a central interface for police officers and other investigators to use to interact with each other, report to other authorities and investigate suspicious people.

It’s supposedly intended to further China’s goal of countering “the three [evil] forces”—separatism, terrorism, and extremism.” But in actuality, HRW calls the app a way “to identify patterns of, and predict, the everyday life and resistance of its population, and, ultimately, to engineer and control reality.”

HRW calls the app a way “to identify patterns of, and predict, the everyday life and resistance of its population, and, ultimately, to engineer and control reality.”

It works like this: mounds of information about a person is collected from a nationwide surveillance network, though mostly Uyguhr Muslims in Xinjiang appear to be targeted.

This type of information includes a person’s height, blood type, religious preference, car, travel activity, online activity, electricity usage, routines, ideological beliefs and much, much more. Then the app categorizes them into ‘person-types’ 36 of which are considered suspicious and worthy of investigation by an official. 


IJOP App (HRW) 

Some of the person-types that warrant investigation are downright absurd. 

IJOP App (HRW)

Take person-type number 14: “Does not socialize with neighbors, seldom uses front door, and acts suspiciously.”

Not getting along with people living near you, being an introvert, using your back door a little too often and generally acting “suspiciously” is grounds for an investigation by an official, which can easily turn into indefinite confinement in one of the region’s many detention camps.

Person-type 17, someone who is part of a “Household [that] uses an abnormal amount of electricity,” is also subject to investigation by an officer who is alerted. It is unclear what differentiates ‘normal’ electricity usage from ‘abnormal,’ but if the app decides the use is too much, it prompts an officer to select why the person is using electricity in the first place.

A drop-down menu is provided to them inside the app. They can choose from one of the following: 

• Had purchased “new electronics for domestic use”;
• Was doing “renovation”;
• Is a “farmer”;
• Possess “cutting or wielding tools or other electronics that have no reasonable
domestic use”;
• Is suspicious because there is “no explanation”; and
• Other

Person-type 20 appears to flag individuals that are not enthusiastic enough about the state’s policies and do not attend state-organized activities enough. 

One of the most striking person-types however, is 35: some who is “linked to those who are being especially watched” is suspicious. If someone maintains any connection to an individual that is being watched more closely than others, they themselves could be investigated.

Because over 12 million individuals are being targeted by this software and invasive policing scheme, it is likely that there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are “especially watched,” creating a vicious cycle whereby people become more and more suspicious by virtue of the fact that they or someone close to them was initially labeled to be suspect. It is not hard to imagine people arbitrarily cycling in and out of detention centers, investigations, interrogations and restrictions, because the state continuously labels them as potentially dangerous.

It is not hard to imagine people arbitrarily cycling in and out of detention centers, investigations, interrogations and restrictions, because the state continuously labels them as potentially dangerous.

Indeed, this appears to be happening. One testimony anonymous collected by HRW shows the real-world impact of this app:

 When I tried going out of the region, my ID would [make a sound] at
police checkpoints.... The police told me I could not go out of [the
hukou] region, because I was blacklisted. So, I went to the police in
my village, and said, ‘I have kids and I need authorization to go….’
But the police wouldn't give the authorization, so I couldn't leave
the region. I got very angry and said, ‘You either kill me, or you put
me in prison, or I’ll kill myself.’

A new type of ‘police checkpoint that does three-dimensional scanning of individuals that can also recover personal data from individuals’ phones (Joanne Smith Finley, HRW)

According to HRW, “The intrusive, massive collection of personal information through the IJOP app helps explain reports by Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang that government officials have asked them or their family members a bewildering array of personal questions. When government agents conduct intrusive visits to Muslims’ homes and offices, for example, they typically ask whether the residents own exercise equipment and how they communicate with families who live abroad; it appears that such officials are fulfilling requirements sent to them through apps such as the IJOP app.”

The danger of such an app lies not only in the fact that it facilitates an unprecedented level of policing and coercion, but that it can only be easily copied by other authoritarian regimes looking to crack down on dissidents or minority groups.

The danger of such an app lies not only in the fact that it facilitates an unprecedented level of policing and coercion, but that it can only be easily copied by other authoritarian regimes looking to crack down on dissidents or minority groups.

China is constructing a dystopian surveillance nightmare inside Xinjiang, and it’s beginning to export the technology developed across the world. Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Germany, the Philippines and others are buying technology deployed in Xinjiang, including facial recognition cameras, city management software and other centralized policing products.

Powerful Chinese companies like Huawei, which are deeply involved in building the technological apparatus needed to suppress millions, are continuously expanding their reach around the globe. 

Meanwhile, more and more Uyghur Muslims find themselves locked up in newly built detention centers, where some are tortured and forced to renounce their faith. 

 

 


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