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Uighur detentions 'turbocharged' by technology

December 9, 2020

Leaked police data showed thousands of Uighur people were arbitrarily selected for arrest via a computer program, a Human Rights Watch report has found.

Reeducation camp in China's Xinjiang region
This building in China's Xinjiang region is thougt to be a Uighur "reeducation" campImage: AFP/G. Baker

Ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang were "arbitrarily" selected for arrest by a computer program that flagged suspicious behavior, Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in a report detailing an expansive data collection project.

HRW said leaked police data, which listed over 2,000 detainees from the Aksu prefecture, offered further evidence of "how China's brutal repression of Xinjiang's Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology."

The list includes detainees flagged by a Chinese predictive policing program, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which collects data and identifies candidates for detention.

It offers the names of Xinjiang Uighurs, phone numbers and reasons for detention in China's system of so-called re-education camps, including studying the Quran, wearing religious clothing or traveling internationally.

"The Aksu list is the first time we have seen the IJOP in action in detaining people," said HRW's Maya Wang.

HRW did not identify the source of the list, citing the person's safety. But the rights group said it had obtained the list —detailing detentions from mid-2016 to late 2018 — from a source who had previously provided audiovisual content taken from inside a facility in Aksu.

Most flagged for legal behavior

The people were flagged using the IJOP program before officials decided whether to send them to camps, according to HRW. The list suggests that the "vast majority" of people were flagged to authorities for legal behavior, including phone calls to relatives abroad, having no fixed address, switching off their phone repeatedly, or appearing "generally untrustworthy."

Only around 10% of the people on the list were detained over suspicions of terrorism.

China has come under intense international criticism over its policies in the territory, where rights groups say as many as 1 million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps.

Beijing said that the heavily guarded centers are educational and vocational institutes and that all who have attended have "graduated" and gone home.

Surveillance spending in Xinjiang has surged in recent years, with facial recognition, iris scanners, DNA collection and artificial intelligence put to use across the province.

lc/sms (Reuters, AFP)