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‘Seldom uses front door’: report reveals how China spies on Muslim minority

Authorities use an app to collect personal data on Uighurs as part of a vast surveillance network, Human Rights Watch says

A re-education camp in Xinjiang, part of a network of control and surveillance used against Muslims which also includes an app to track suspicious ‘person types’. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Beijing (The Guardian) - Using too much electricity or having acquaintances abroad are among a list of reasons that prompt authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region to investigate Uighurs and other Muslims who might be deemed “untrustworthy” and sent to internment camps, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

The report, released on Thursday, analyses a mobile app used by authorities in Xinjiang to collect personal data from ethnic minorities, file reports about people and objects they find suspicious, and carry out investigations.

The app is connected with the integrated joint operations platform (IJOP), a Xinjiang policing program that aggregates people’s data and flags those deemed potentially threatening. IJOP is part of a vast surveillance network currently employed in the restive region that includes frequent checkpoints equipped with face scanners, so-called “convenience” police stations, and surveillance cameras inside homes.

Besides the pervasive surveillance, human rights groups estimate about one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims are being held in political re-education camps, where they are taught communist propaganda and forced to renounce their religion. China calls the camps voluntary “training centres” and has likened them to boarding schools, but survivors speak of brainwashing, torture and abuse inside the facilities.

Data collection, including people’s blood type, height and religious practices, has been central to the crackdown, which started in late 2016, the rights group says.

“The Chinese government is monitoring every aspect of people’s lives in Xinjiang, picking out those it mistrusts, and subjecting them to extra scrutiny,” says Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

The non-profit says it has reverse-engineered the IJOP app – whose design it says was publicly available in 2018 – with the help of Berlin-based security company Cure53. The IJOP system and app were developed by subsidiaries of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a major state-owned military contractor in China, according to procurement documents.

The app targets 36 “person types” to whom officials must pay special attention. The categories include seemingly harmless behaviours such as “does not socialise with neighbours, seldom uses front door”; “suddenly returned to hometown after being away for a long time”; “collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm”; and “household uses an abnormal amount of electricity.”

After assisting authorities in filing reports on potentially suspicious people, the app prompts them to carry out “investigative missions” during which they collect even more personal data. Investigations might require, for example, checking a person’s phone for any of the 51 apps deemed problematic such as WhatsApp and virtual private networks (VPNs).

The IJOP app might also require information about a person’s vehicle, including colour, type and licence plate number. The data could enable surveillance cameras equipped with artificial intelligence to track the vehicle as it travels and passes through checkpoints, Human Rights Watch said.

“People’s freedom of movement is restricted to varying degrees depending on the level of threat authorities perceive they pose, determined by factors programmed into the system,” the report says.

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