Computer program in Xinjiang, China “arbitrarily” selects Muslims for arrest, says HRW

Muslims in China’s Xinjiang have been “arbitrarily” selected to be arrested by a computer program that reported suspicious behavior, activists said Wednesday in a report detailing the role of big data in the crackdown in the troubled region.

A leaked list of more than 2,000 ethnic Uyghur detainees in Xinjiang suggests the government used a massive data collection project to arbitrarily detain Uyghurs in the region, according to United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The Xinjiang Aksu Prefecture list, obtained by HRW, contains detainees reported by a Chinese predictive policing program, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which collects data and identifies potential detainees. The 2018 list includes names of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, phone numbers, and reasons for detention in the Chinese camp system, including studying the Quran, wearing religious clothing, or traveling abroad.

“The Aksu List is the first time we’ve seen the IJOP in action to detain people,” said Maya Wang of HRW. It “provides additional information on how China’s brutal crackdown on Turkish Muslims in Xinjiang is being energized by technology,” she said. HRW did not identify the source of the list, citing personal safety, as Reuters reported.

Experts and United Nations lawyers say at least 1 million ethnic Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslims and speak a Turkish language, were held at one point in internment camps in Xinjiang. China maintains that the heavily supervised centers are educational and vocational institutes aimed at eradicating terrorism and improving employment opportunities. He says everyone who attended “graduated” and went home. Access to the camps is restricted and it is not possible to independently verify whether all camps have closed.

HRW said it was able to confirm the identities of those on the list with Uyghurs now living abroad, including the identification of 18 members of the same family.

The rights group said the list is further evidence that the government selected Uyghurs in Xinjiang for detention on the basis of religion, personal connections, contact with relatives overseas and even age. Other reasons for detention listed include activities such as repeatedly turning off a smartphone, “unstable thinking” or “being generally untrustworthy.”

Beijing has come under heavy international criticism for its policies in this resource-rich territory. Surveillance spending in Xinjiang has skyrocketed in recent years, with facial recognition, iris scanners, DNA collection and artificial intelligence (AI) deployed across the province in the name of terrorism prevention. However, only around 10% of those on the list have been detained on the grounds of terrorism or extremism, HRW said. The list, parts of which were shown to Agence France-Presse (AFP), described the reason for the detention of many people as simply being “flagged” by the integrated platform.

Separately, US-based surveillance research firm IPVM said in a report Tuesday that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei had been involved in testing facial recognition software that could send alerts to police when ‘he recognized the faces of Uyghur minorities.

An internal Huawei report cited by IPVM – which was deleted from the company’s website but is still visible in Google searches – showed that the software passed tests for “Uyghur alerts” and “recognition based on l age, gender, ethnicity, angle of facial images. Huawei did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.

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