How China Uses AI to Identify ‘Suspicious’ Muslims for Predictive Policing

Facial recognition, Wi-Fi bugs and spyware are used to determine which Turkic Muslims need to be detained in Xinjiang, a Human Rights Watch report says.
December 9, 2020, 8:29am
xinjiang, uighurs, china, ai, big data
A complex in Hotan, Xinjiang believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained. Photo: GREG BAKER / AFP

Chinese authorities have been using predictive software to select Muslim minorities for detention based on seemingly innocuous behaviour, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on Wednesday.

That program, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), uses artificial intelligence to compile lists of so-called “suspicious persons” based on data and personal information that it has collected from citizens—often without their knowledge or consent.

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The program targets Uighurs and members of other mostly Muslim Turkic minorities in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang, where evidence suggests more than 1 million Muslims are held in extrajudicial detention, ostensibly to counter terrorism.

IJOP creates the lists using data mined with technology including closed circuit cameras with facial recognition, “Wi-Fi sniffers” that collect information from smartphones and computers, and spyware that police occasionally order Xinjiang residents to install on their phones, the HRW report said.

Those lists are then issued to state officials, who evaluate the named individuals’ “general performance” and determine whether to send them to what Beijing calls “re-education centres”.

One such list, containing the names of over 2,000 detainees from Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture and referred to in the report as the Aksu List, was leaked to HRW in August. The rights group’s analysis indicates that most people named were flagged by IJOP and detained for everyday, lawful behaviour. 

The revelations are further evidence that challenges Chinese authorities’ claims that their program targets criminals with precision.

“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, a senior China researcher at HRW. “The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: why were they detained, and where are they now?”

Wang further stated that such such “‘predictive policing’ platforms are really just a pseudo-scientific fig leaf for the Chinese government to justify vast repression of Turkic Muslims”.

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“The Chinese government should immediately shut down the IJOP, delete all the data it has collected, and release everyone arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang,” she said.

Most people named in the Aksu List were flagged for their relationships, their communications, or for being related to or staying with someone the authorities consider suspicious. As for what constitutes “suspicious” in the eyes of Xinjiang authorities, HRW listed a number of seemingly innocuous “problematic behaviours”—including being “young” (born after the 80s), switching off one’s phone repeatedly, being generally untrustworthy and “generally acting suspiciously”.

As HRW notes, such arbitrary detention and mass surveillance of Xinjiang’s Uighur population violates fundamental rights under China’s constitution and international human rights law. It amounts to a form of predictive and preventive policing that treats Turkic Muslims with the presumption that they’re guilty until proven innocent.

“The evidence suggests that, consistent with official rhetoric, political education is akin to a form of preventive detention, where people’s behaviors are deemed vaguely suspicious but not criminal,” the report stated. “They are being held until their loyalty can be ascertained and, as needed, instilled.”

China’s re-education camps have drawn global ire over the past few years, as a number of foreign governments and international bodies condemn what they say are egregious human rights violations. In October 2019, 23 countries issued a joint statement to the United Nations urging China to “uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief” and to refrain from “arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities.”

And yet despite Chinese officials’ claims, the re-education program does not appear to be winding down anytime soon. In September 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) reported in its Xinjiang Data Project that construction of camps was continuing. The institute suggested that more than 380 detention centres, ranging from lowest security re-education camps to fortified prisons, had been established across the region since 2017.

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