China’s new cyber totalitarianism

Hacker typing on a laptop

Human Rights Watch has released a report on human rights abuses in the world’s largest totalitarian state — the People’s Republic of China. And it’s terrifying. As bad, if not worse, as anything Orwell imagined in 1984.

It turns out that Human Rights Watch got its hands on a mobile surveillance app that Chinese security cops use in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the home to the country’s 13 million Uyghur Muslim minority. The region has been the site of Islamic fundamentalist violence that the Chinese government is attempting to crush with a program of pervasive surveillance and mass arrests called the “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism.”

According to some reports, more than a million Uyghur Muslims have been sent to concentration camps for “re-education.”

Human Rights Watch acquired the app more than a year ago and contracted with Berlin’s Cure53, a cybersecurity company, to reverse engineer it. It recently released a report on the app titled “China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App.”

According to a Human Rights Watch news release, the app connects to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), a Xinjiang policing program that aggregates data about people and flags those deemed potentially untrustworthy.

The reverse engineering revealed the specific behaviors and personal profiles the surveillance system collects and targets.

The personal information collected includes name, ID type and number, ethnicity, address, car number (presumably license plate or VIN), profession, education, passport, phone number, relationship with the person registered as the head of household, height, blood type and photo.

It also collected information about people’s political status, religion and “religious atmosphere” (whether religious feelings were “fair” or “strong”).

For persons who have travelled abroad or want to, the app sought information on the “reason for seeking asylum or education” abroad, the destination country, the reason for leaving Xinjiang, and whether or not the traveler has “changed identity.”

But the real totalitarian information collection begins with a list of 36 “person types” singled out for special attention. The list is a clinic on how to weaponize information on individual citizens for near-pervasive control of their lives.

Here’s the translated list in its entirety:

1) Released from security-related sentence, and family

2) Unofficial imam

3) Gone on Hajj without state authorization

4) Follower, or follower of follower, of person associated with “the Six Lines,” (six religious scholars and intellectual authorities considered particularly threatening in Xinjiang)

5) Share or receive “Wahhabism”

6) Subjected to “political education”

7) Returned from abroad

8) Relative of a person who is sentenced to death, was shot to death, or detonated and killed themselves

9) Classified under categories 3, 4 and 5 by the National Security Unit of the Ministry of Public Security

10) Suddenly returned to hometown after being away for a long time

11) Sentenced to “control and surveillance” — a non-custodial sentence in which police supervise a person between three and 24 months — or “juyi,” a sentence between one and six months served in police detention centers during the Strike Hard Campaign, but sentence instead has been converted to “community corrections”

12) Released after serving a sentence for the July 2009 Urumqi riots, and family

13) Used smart-phones in the past but has stopped altogether, or using only analog phones

14) Does not socialize with neighbors, seldom uses front door, and acts suspiciously

15) Collected money or materials for mosques with enthusiasm

16) Suddenly sells all belongings and moves for no apparent reason, especially with their entire family

17) Household uses an abnormal amount of electricity

18) Violated the family planning policy and has more children than allowed

19) Knows welding and how to make explosives

20) For no apparent reason, unwilling to enjoy policies that benefit the people or fails to participate in activities organized by the local government or the Party

21) Registers [with the authorities] to travel abroad

22) Electricity meter number is missing in the data collected by government official during home-visit

23) Reported number of persons in household differs from actual number of persons found at home when government officials visit

24) Did not tell government officials conducting home visits of already having a passport

25) Gone “off-grid” since January 1, 2016, but missing trajectory was not registered with government officials conducting home visit

26) [Flagged by the IJOP system as] using an abnormal amount of electricity

27) Moved out of their locale

28) Moved into their locale

29) Person and ID card mismatch

30) Person and phone mismatch

31) Person and car mismatch

32) Linked to the clues of cases

33) Linked to “those on the run”

34) Linked to “those abroad”

35) Linked to “those who are being especially watched”

36) Other

The “home visits” by government officials referred to in several of the questions can last for several days.

The Human Rights Watch report also says that under the Strike Hard Campaign “Xinjiang authorities have collected biometrics, including DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types of all residents in the region between the ages of 12 and 65.”

“Additionally, authorities have required residents to give voice samples when they apply for passports,” the report said.

All of this information goes into centralized, searchable databases, the report said.

What should we make of this?

Normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s was supposed to encourage the emergence of a free market economy (which it sort of did) and emergence of a freer society (which it obviously didn’t).

The fact that the Chinese are reverting to totalitarian government shouldn’t be all that surprising. The country has a 2,500-year history of totalitarian oppression.

But the fact that they have computerized surveillance and social control to a degree that makes Orwell’s 1984 look naïve is terrifying — especially since the software they’ve developed is being offered for sale to tyrannical regimes all over the planet.

Xinjiang isn’t Las Vegas. What happens there isn’t going to stay there.

So instead of trying to negotiate a new trade deal with China, maybe we should be asking ourselves do we still want “normal” relations with these guys.