Exposed Chinese database shows depth of surveillance state

Victor Gevers said the tracking systems recorded over 6.7 million coordinates every 24 hours. Above, security cameras are pictured on a street in Urumqi in Xinjiang region. (AFP/File)
Updated 19 February 2019
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Exposed Chinese database shows depth of surveillance state

  • The database recorded coordinates through facial recognition tracking systems
  • It contains data on more than 2.5 million persons in western China

BEIJING: The Chinese database Victor Gevers found online was not just a collection of old personal details.
It was a compilation of real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts. Alongside their names, birthdates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited — mosque, hotel, restaurant.
The discovery by Gevers, a Dutch cybersecurity researcher who revealed it on Twitter last week, has given a rare glimpse into China’s extensive surveillance of Xinjiang, a remote region home to an ethnic minority population that is largely Muslim. The area has been blanketed with police checkpoints and security cameras that apparently are doing more than just recording what happens.
The database Gevers found appears to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, he said, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours.
It illustrates how far China has taken facial recognition — in ways that would raise alarm about privacy concerns in many other countries — and serves as a reminder of how easily technology companies can leave supposedly private records exposed to global snoopers.
Gevers found that SenseNets, a Chinese facial recognition company, had left the database unprotected for months, exposing people’s addresses, government ID numbers and more. After Gevers informed SenseNets of the leak, he said, the database became inaccessible.
“This system was open to the entire world, and anyone had full access to the data,” said Gevers, noting that a system designed to maintain control over individuals could have been “corrupted by a 12-year-old.”
He said it included the coordinates of places where the individuals had recently been spotted by “trackers” — likely to be surveillance cameras. The stream indicated that the data is constantly being updated with information on people’s whereabouts, he said in an interview over a messaging app.
Gevers posted a graph online showing that 54.9 percent of the individuals in the database were identified as Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority, while 28.3 percent were Uighur and 8.3 percent were Kazakh, both Muslim ethnic minority groups.
A person who answered the phone at SenseNets declined a request for comment. The Xinjiang regional government did not respond to faxed questions.
Xinjiang, which borders central Asia in China’s far west, has been subject to severe security measures in recent years as part of what the government says has been a successful program to quash extremist and separatist movements.
The US and other countries have condemned the crackdown, in which an estimated 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in internment camps that the government says are vocational training centers designed to rid the region of latent extremism.
Gulzia, an ethnic Kazakh woman who didn’t want her last name used out of fear of retribution, said that cameras were being installed everywhere, even in cemeteries, in late 2017. Now living across the border in Kazakhstan, she told The Associated Press by phone on Monday that she had been confined to house arrest in China and taken to a police station, where they photographed her face and eyes and collected samples of her voice and fingerprints.
“This can be used instead of your ID card to identify you in the future,” she said they told her. “Even if you get into an accident abroad, we’ll recognize you.”
The security clampdown is far heavier in Xinjiang than in most parts of China, though outside analysts and human rights activists have expressed concern that Xinjiang may be a testing ground for techniques that may be creeping into other parts of the country.
Joseph Atick, a pioneer in facial recognition technology, said that facial recognition products can use algorithms to recognize and track people in a crowd, but that privacy regulations in Europe, for example, make it much harder to launch a wide-scale application such as that of SenseNet.
“The technology around the world is becoming uniform and it is just the political climate that is different and leads to different applications,” he said.
According to a company registry, SenseNets was founded in the southern China city of Shenzhen in 2015 and is majority-owned by Beijing-based NetPosa, a technology company specializing in video surveillance. Its website showcases partnerships with police forces in Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces and the city of Shanghai.
A promotional video boasts about SenseNets’ capacity to use facial and body recognition to track individuals’ precise movements and identify them even in a crowded or chaotic setting. Another video on its website shows surveillance cameras zeroing in on the path of a runaway prisoner who ends up in an ailing relative’s hospital room.
NetPosa’s website says it has offices in Boston and Santa Clara, California. The website of NetPosa’s US subsidiary touts its products’ use in urban anti-terrorism.
In recent years, NetPosa has been buying stakes in American surveillance startups such as Knightscope, a security robot maker. In 2017, NetPosa tried to buy the now-bankrupt California surveillance camera maker Arecont, but later backed out, court records show.
In 2010 US chip maker Intel announced a strategic partnership with NetPosa and an Intel subsidiary bought a stake in the company, but NetPosa said in 2015 that Intel had notified the Chinese company of its intent to divest its 4.44 stake by 2016.
Gevers said his discovery of the database presented an ethical dilemma. He is the co-founder of GDI Foundation, a Netherlands-based nonprofit that finds and informs entities of online security issues. He has become well-known in recent years for helping to uncover similarly exposed information on databases built with the open source MongoDB database program and left unsecured by their administrators.
GDI generally reports such discoveries to the entity that holds the information. Part of its mission is to remain neutral and not engage in political controversies.
Hours after he revealed his findings on Twitter, Gevers said, he learned that the system might be used to surveil Xinjiang’s Muslim minority groups.
He said that made him “very angry.”
“I could have destroyed that database with one command,” he said. “But I choose not to play judge and executioner because it is not my place to do so.”


Brexit in disarray as Theresa May faces possible ouster plot

Updated 42 min 40 sec ago
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Brexit in disarray as Theresa May faces possible ouster plot

  • British politics is at fever pitch and nearly three years since the 2016 Brexit referendum
  • With Theresa May humiliated and weakened, ministers insist she and the British government are still in charge of the country

LONDON: The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union was in disarray on Sunday as Prime Minister Theresa May faced a possible plot by ministers to topple her and parliament prepared to grab control of Brexit from the government.
At one of the most important junctures for the country since World War Two, British politics was at fever pitch and, nearly three years since the 2016 referendum, it was still unclear how, when or if Brexit will ever take place.
With May humiliated and weakened, ministers insisted she and the British government were still in charge of the country, and that the best option was still for parliament to ratify May’s twice-defeated Brexit divorce deal.
As hundreds of thousands of people marched across central London on Saturday to demand another Brexit referendum, May was the subject of what The Sunday Times said was a “coup” by senior ministers seeking to oust her.
The newspaper cited 11 unidentified senior ministers and said they had agreed that the prime minister should stand down, warning that she has become a toxic and erratic figure whose judgment has “gone haywire.”
When asked by Sky about reports in The Sunday Times and other newspapers of a plot and whether she had run out of road, finance minister Philip Hammond said: “No. I don’t think that is the case at all.”
“Changing prime minister wouldn’t help us,” Hammond said. “To be talking about changing the players on the board, frankly, is self-indulgent at this time.”
Hammond said the best way forward would be for parliament to back May’s deal, although he said that it might not be approved and so parliament should then try to find a way to end the impasse.
“I’m realistic that we may not be able to get a majority for the prime minister’s (Brexit) deal and if that is the case then parliament will have to decide not just what it’s against but what it is for,” he said.
Brexit had been due to happen on March 29 before May secured a delay in talks with the EU on Thursday.
Now a May 22 departure date will apply if parliament rallies behind the British prime minister and she is able to pass her deal. If she fails to do so, Britain will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave the EU without a treaty.
Some lawmakers have asked May to name her departure date as the price for supporting her deal, though it was unclear when a third vote might take place.
If May’s deal is dead, then parliament will try to find a different option. That opens an array of options including a much softer divorce than May had intended, a referendum, a revocation of the Article 50 divorce papers or even an election.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said May’s deal was the best option and urged people to get behind the prime minister.
“The government and the prime minister are in charge,” Barclay said. May went to her usual church service near her Chequers country residence on Sunday with her husband.
The Sunday Times reported that May’s de-facto deputy, David Lidington, was one contender to be interim prime minister but others are pushing for Environment Secretary Michael Gove or Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
“I don’t think that I have any wish to take over from the PM, I think (she) is doing a fantastic job,” Lidington told reporters outside his house.
“One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task,” he quipped.
Lawmakers are due on Monday to debate a government motion saying parliament has considered a statement made by May on March 15 which set out the government’s next steps on Brexit, including the plan to seek a delay.
They are likely to propose changes, or amendments, to this motion setting out alternative ways forward on Brexit. These are expected to include a proposal to approve May’s deal only if it is put to a public vote.
While amendments are not legally binding, instead simply exerting political pressure on May to change course, lawmakers could use one to attempt to change the rules of parliament to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government.
A British election could be the consequence of parliament seizing control of the Brexit process if lawmakers back proposals contrary to the pledges the government was elected on, Barclay said.