Xinjiang surveillance app targets legal, everyday behavior: rights group

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 02 May 2019

Xinjiang surveillance app targets legal, everyday behavior: rights group

  • A number of people said they or their family members have been detained for having software such as WhatsApp or a Virtual Private Network (VPN) installed on their phones during checks by authorities

HONG KONG: Chinese authorities are using a mobile app designed for mass surveillance to profile, investigate and detain Muslims in Xinjiang by labelling “completely lawful” behavior as suspicious, a Human Rights Watch report said Thursday.
Beijing has come under international criticism over its policies in the northwest region of Xinjiang, where as many as one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps, according to a group of experts cited by the UN.
Human Rights Watch has previously reported that Xinjiang authorities use a mass surveillance system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) to gather information from multiple sources, such as facial-recognition cameras, wifi sniffers, police checkpoints, banking records and home visits.
But the new study, entitled “China’s Algorithms of Repression,” worked with a Berlin-based security company to analyze an app connected to the IJOP, showing specific acts targeted by the system.
Xinjiang authorities closely watch 36 categories of behavior, including those who do not socialize with neighbors, often avoid using the front door, don’t use a smartphone, donate to mosques “enthusiastically,” and use an “abnormal” amount of electricity, the group found.
The app also instructs officers to investigate those related to someone who got a new phone number, or related to others who left the country and have not returned after 30 days.
“Our research shows, for the first time, that Xinjiang police are using illegally gathered information about people’s completely lawful behavior — and using it against them,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Chinese government is monitoring every aspect of people’s lives in Xinjiang, picking out those it mistrusts, and subjecting them to extra scrutiny.”

The rights group obtained a copy of the app and enlisted cybersecurity firm Cure53 to “reverse-engineer” it — to disassemble it and look at its design and data — and examined its source code.
Along with collecting personal information the app prompts officials to file reports about people, vehicles and events they find suspect — and sends out “investigative missions” for police to follow up.
Officers are also asked to check whether suspects use any of the 51 Internet tools that are deemed suspicious, including foreign messaging platforms popular outside China like WhatsApp, LINE and Telegram.
A number of people said they or their family members have been detained for having software such as WhatsApp or a Virtual Private Network (VPN) installed on their phones during checks by authorities, according to the report.
The rights group said its findings suggest the IJOP system tracks data of everyone in Xinjiang by monitoring location data from their phones, ID cards and vehicles, plus electricity and gas station usage.
“Psychologically, the more people are sure that their actions are monitored and that they, at anytime, can be judged for moving outside of a safe grey-space, the more likely they are to do everything to avoid coming close to crossing a moving red- line,” Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center, told AFP.
“There is no rule of law in China, the Party ultimately decides what is legal and illegal behavior, and it doesn’t have to be written down.”
The IJOP app was developed by Hebei Far East Communication System Engineering Company (HBFEC), which at the time of the app’s development was fully-owned by China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a state-owned technology giant (CETC), said Human Rights Watch.
CETC could not be reached and HBFEC did not respond to requests for comment.
Washington last year imposed export controls on key Chinese companies including HBFEC and other institutions under CETC, citing risks to US national security and foreign policy interests.
Greg Walton, an independent cybersecurity expert who advised on the report, said while the system is a “blunt instrument that may be directly contributing to the massive numbers of people in internment camps,” the data if stored could be used in the future for more advanced policing algorithms.
“This means that data collected through the app today may well be analyzed in a few years’ time by far more sophisticated logic,” he said.


India reimposes movement curbs on parts of Kashmir’s main city after clashes

Updated 39 min 46 sec ago

India reimposes movement curbs on parts of Kashmir’s main city after clashes

  • There were violent overnight clashes between residents and police in which dozens were injured
  • India has been fighting a revolt in which at least 50,000 people have been killed

SRINAGAR: Indian authorities reimposed restrictions on movement in major parts of Kashmir’s biggest city, Srinagar, on Sunday after violent overnight clashes between residents and police in which dozens were injured, two senior officials and eyewitnesses said.
In the past 24 hours, there has been a series of protests against New Delhi’s Aug. 5 revocation of the region’s autonomy. This followed an easing in curbs on movement on Saturday morning.
The state government has said that it has not imposed a curfew over the past two weeks, but on Sunday people were being turned back at multiple roadblocks set up in the city in the past few hours. Security forces at some roadblocks have told residents there is a curfew.
Two senior government officials told Reuters that at least two dozen people were admitted to hospitals with pellet injuries after violent clashes broke out in the old city on Saturday night.
Representatives in the Jammu and Kashmir government in Srinagar and the federal government in New Delhi did not immediately return calls asking about the latest clampdown or seeking an assessment of the number of injuries and clashes.
One of the official sources said that people pelted security forces with stones in around two dozen places across Srinagar. He said that the intensity of the stone pelting protests has increased over past few days.
The heavy overnight clashes took place mostly in Rainawari, Nowhetta and Gojwara areas of the old city where Indian troops fired tear smoke, chilly grenades and pellets to disperse protesters, eyewitnesses and officials said.
Chilly grenades contain very spicy chili pepper, and produce a major eye and skin irritant, as well as a pungent smell, when they are unleashed.
The officials, who declined to be identified because they aren’t supposed to talk to the media, said clashes also took place in other parts of the city including Soura, a hotbed of protests in the past two weeks.
A senior government official and hospital authorities at Srinagar’s main hospital said that at least 17 people came there with pellet injuries. They said 12 were discharged while five with grievous injuries were admitted.
The hospital officials and a police officer told Reuters that a 65-year-old man, Mohammad Ayub of Braripora, was admitted to the hospital after he had major breathing difficulties when tear gas and chilly grenades were fired in old city area on Saturday afternoon. He died in the hospital on Saturday night and has already been buried, they said.
Javed Ahmad, age 35 and from the wealthy Rajbagh area of Srinagar, was prevented from going to the old city early Sunday morning by paramilitary police at a barricade near the city center. “I had to visit my parents there. Troops had blocked the road with concertina wire. They asked me to go back as there was curfew in the area,” he said.
Telephone landlines were restored in parts of the city on Saturday after a 12-day blackout and the state government said most telephone exchanges in the region would start working by Sunday evening. Internet and cell phones remain blocked in Kashmir.
More than 500 political or community leaders and activists remained in detention, and some have been flown to prisons outside the state.
For 30 years in the part of Kashmir that it controls, India has been fighting a revolt in which at least 50,000 people have been killed. Critics say the decision to revoke autonomy will cause further alienation and fuel the armed resistance.
The change will allow non-residents to buy property in Jammu and Kashmir, and end the practice of reserving state government jobs for local residents.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has said the measure is necessary to integrate Kashmir fully into India and speed up its development.