A new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday showed that the Chinese government is using big data to arbitrarily detain Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
A list leaked to HRW of over 2,000 detainees from Aksu prefecture is further evidence of China’s use of technology in its repression of the Muslim population.
The big data program, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a predictive computer programme, analyses data and selects members of minority communities to be detained in “political education” camps.
“The Aksu List provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology,” said Maya Wang, HRW senior China researcher.
“The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: why were they detained, and where are they now?”
Human Rights Watch first reported on the IJOP in February 2018, noting that the policing program aggregates data about people from various sensory systems in Xinjiang, and flags to officials those it deems potentially threatening.
Officials then evaluate these individuals’ “general performance” together with other sources of information, and send some to political education camps and other facilities.
Human Rights Watch “reverse engineered” the IJOP mobile app in May 2019 and revealed the dubious criteria this mass surveillance system was programmed to flag, including many lawful behaviours.
This contradicts the Chinese authorities’ claims that their “sophisticated,” “predictive” technologies, like the IJOP, are keeping Xinjiang safe by “targeting” criminals “with precision.”
The IJOP programme automatically selects possible detainees for the controversial camps set up in the remote region according to parameters including studying the Koran, wearing religious clothing or travelling internationally.
The Aksu List, dated around late 2018, is similar to another leaked file, the Karakax List. That list–of people detained for having relatives abroad–dated around June 2019, provides an assessment of whether an individual should remain in detention.
The IJOP is also repeatedly mentioned in the Karakax List. Together the lists provide two snapshots of Xinjiang’s bureaucracy, as it picks and vets its victims in the process of coerced thought transformation: the decision to detain people and the decision to keep them in detention.
At both stages, the IJOP system assists officials in selecting targets.
“The Aksu list is the first time we have seen the IJOP in action in detaining people,” said Wang.
“‘Predictive policing’ platforms are really just a pseudo-scientific fig leaf for the Chinese government to justify vast repression of Turkic Muslims,” Wang said.
“The Chinese government should immediately shut down the IJOP, delete all the data it has collected, and release everyone arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.”
Human Rights Watch did not identify the source of the list, citing the person’s safety.
Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.N. experts and advocates say at least a million ethnic Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslim and speak a Turkic language, have been detained at some point in Xinjiang camps. (Source: HRW)