How Surveillance Tech is Fueling A Chinese Cultural Genocide

Volume II, Issue V

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Today’s Big Story

How Surveillance Tech is Fueling A Chinese Cultural Genocide 

Forced abortions, government-induced sterilization, and violent police raids bursting open doors in search of hidden children. These are the scenes illustrated in recent reporting claiming what amounts to a full-scale cultural genocide plaguing the world’s most populous country.

Much reporting and public discussion in recent years have focused in on the Chinese government’s militaristic internment of the Uighurs — a Muslim ethnic group that occupy much of of the Xinjiang region — but never before has there been described such a brazenly explicit attempt by the state to completely eliminate an entire ethnic group. 

According to the reporting by the Associated Press, the Chinese government has taken “draconian,” measures to curb Uighur birth rates, while simultaneously promoting larger families for ethnically Han Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of Uighur women are reportedly subject to forced sterilization and abortions. Families found to have violated the government’s three child per household limit are reportedly regularly sent to the region’s now-infamous reeducation camps. 

The total effect of this amounts to what some have called a, “demographic genocide.” This excerpt from the AP investigation cites some data leading credence to that claim. 

“Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018, the latest year available in government statistics. Across the Xinjiang region, birth rates continue to plummet, falling nearly 24% last year alone — compared to just 4.2% nationwide, statistics show.”

That story is chilling and worthy of your time to read in full. But for the purposes of this space, I want to quickly focus in on the surveillance technology that made these mass Muslim internment camps possible in the first place. 

The area of Xinjiang where most Uyghurs call home has been the epicenter of political struggle for decades. First brought under Chinese control in 1949, Xinjiang has witnessed near-constant clashes between its historic residents and new Chinese landlords. For much of its early history, Communist officials referred to the rugged patch of land as, “the new frontier.” 

Almost immediately, the government encouraged ethnically Han Chinese residents to pack up and move to the area in an attempt to alter its demographics. Large military bases were also set up in the region to further shift the population balance. To some extent, that campaign worked (Xinjiang is now reportedly about half Uyghur). 

That demographic shift, however, was a road paved in blood. Throughout the 1990s riots erupted between Uyghurs and Han Chinese throughout the region and would continue on intermittently for decades. While some attacks were launched by Uyghur separatist groups, those were often out shadowed by disproportionate acts of Chinese state aggression. A 1997 Amnesty International report described one of the largest encounters as a peaceful protest turned massacre. The report quoted Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer, who said.“I have never seen such viciousness in my life.” “Chinese soldiers were bludgeoning the demonstrators.”

The region’s shift towards the type of digital surveillance seen now owes itself in large part to the global reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Taking notes from the lexicon of the US and its allies the Chinese government adjusted its narrative and started categorizing the Uyghurs generally as “terrorists.” With that, the state was able to justify an era of new, gloves off mass digital surveillance. 

On the Chinese government’s side, officials claim the surge in surveillance methods are actually in the Uighur’s best interest. Citing 2009 riots that left over 200 dead and decades worth of sectarian violence, an official told BuzzFeed reporter Megha Rajagopalanay that the omnipresent all-seeing eye of the state prevents unrest, and allows daily life to continue unfettered. 

While general communal surveillance had gone on for decades, the practice reached new heights in 2011 with the introduction of WeChat, China’s most used messaging app. Uyghurs, along with most Chinese, flocked to the app to discuss everything from local events to politics. 

Quickly, according to a detailed Wired investigation, extremist Islamist content started making its way to the app. While experts say the extremist content only comprised a slim minority of Uyghur WeChat communications, all of it was being monitored by Chinese government officials. In 2014, the Chiese government reportedly enlisted a task force to eliminate “malpractice” on messaging apps, with a focused on “rumors and information leading to violence, terrorism, and pornography.” Now, a decade later the government regularly monitors the cell phone communications of Chinese Muslim minorities.

Xinjiang was also one of the first testbeds for Chinese facial recognition. While in the US, debates over law enforcement use of the technology have just now reached national attention, Wired reporting shows how Chinese law enforcement was using handheld devices equipped with facial recognition to monitor Uyghurs dating as far back as 2015. 

Uyghurs speaking with Wired reported regularly having their faces scanned and dumped into large government databases. In more extreme cases, some Uyghurs were forced to provide DNA and blood samples to officials. Some have even had to give voice samples to officials, with one person recounting an incident to Wired where she was told to read from a newspaper for a full minute. 

All of this, critics and activists claim, was part of a long term strategy to map Uyghurs biologically and track them down to their cellular level.

Spending on local surveillance in Xinjiang reportedly rose by 45% in the first half of 2016. By 2016, over 160,000 cameras had been installed in the Chinese city of Urumqi. 

People in the region can reportedly be sent to camps for reasons far short of inciting terrorist violence. According to reports of those who have been released, merely having a relative that has traveled to a Muslim majority country can qualify someone for interment. The mere act of recieving a text or phone call from someone outside of China has reportedly been enough to warrant detainment. 

Rajagopalan’s reporting elicits images of armed guards lining the streets of Xinjiang’s most populous cities, reportedly stopping residents for random searches, which can include scouring through their phones for evidence of illicit apps like WhatsApp. In some areas of the region, Uighur’s have reportedly been forced to download an app called Jingwang, which is used to directly monitor their messages. 

Facial recognition scanners are ubiquitous and are reportedly found in places as mundane as the local gas station. The most recent reporting has unearthed an even darker side of Uighur surveillance — families being forced to spy on each other. 

In an interview with BuzzFeed, James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University in Australia described the boom in surveillance to BuzzFeed as “a high-tech version of the Cultural Revolution.”

Then there’s the physical detention centers. 

By 2018 a United Nations human rights panel said they believed up to one million Uyghurs were being forcibly detained in re-education camps. Of course, in the state’s eyes, these are simply lawful “vocational education and training programs,” facilities. Recently, as the AP report exposed, Uyghurs have also been detained on mass for violating China’s restriction of three children per household. While this law applies to all Chinese residents, the AP report found that Han Chinse are rarely imprisoned for violating the law. 

The plight of the Uyghurs should bother you for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s an atrocity, one of little equivalence in the modern context. Should the recent AP reporting of mass forced sterilizations stand the test of scrutiny, it’s fair to say we are witnessing, in real-time, the dissolving of community.

Secondly, the current reality of mass detainment serves as an example of the real-life possibilities when mass surveillance is left unchecked. While Uyghur persecution far precedes facial recognition of digital communications, it was only through the all-seeing power of mass surveillance that the government was able to subvert an entire group of people, largely without the world batting an eye. 

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In Other News…

1) Brazil's Fabricated “Fake News” Law

The Brazillian senate just approved sweeping “fake news” laws that activists worry could be used to target the free press and political dissent. 

  • The new law would require social media companies operating in the country to track the most widely shared messages in their platform and take more preventive measures to stop fake accounts from, “deceiving the public.” 

  • Messaging apps such as WhatsApp are required to store message chains forwarded over a thousand times for 15 days, which would allow viral posts to be traced back to their source. The bill also bans the use of any tools that enable mass messaging. Social media companies can reportedly be penalized up to 10% of their yearly profits for failing to meet abide by the new rules. 

  • In an interview with Bloomberg News, Brazillian senator Rodrigo Pacheco said the bill, “represents a milestone in identifying and preventing harmful and criminal lies on the Internet,” and claimed, “Brazil is losing the battle against fake news and needs this law.” 

Within Brazil, some see the bill as a direct refute to the country’s authoritarian leader, Jair Bolsonaro.

  • According to a Bloomberg report, Bolsonaro supporters have used fake accounts and social media misinformation tactics to disparage and harass the president’s opponents. 

  • Anonymous social media accounts and bots have reached new heights under Bolsonaro’s rule.

  • Bolsonaro has spoken out against the bill and claimed, in Trump-like parlance “No one is criticized on the internet more than me and I never complained.”

While the bill may hurt Bolsonaro, civil liberties groups worry of more far-reaching censorship implications. 

  • Amongst the most troubling elements of the bill is a provision that would eventually require total surveillance of posts that go viral. 

  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke out against the bill and claimed it would jeopardize the free communications of million in order to dissuade a nominal amount of malicious actors. 

  • In an interview with Bloomberg, a spokesperson for WhatsApp worried the bill would, “mark the end of private communications.

    • “Everything you say or forward would be tracked and could be used against you.”

  • Other legal scholars say the bill’s definition of what counts as “misinformation” is overly vague and would lead to more censorship. 

Key trends: “Fake News,” laws have seen rapid growth around the globe following Donald Trump’s 2016 election. 

  • In one of the most extreme cases, Egypt passed an equivalent fake news law that would automatically hold individuals with more than 300 social media followers liable to the same standards as publishers.

  • Disinformation researchers I spoke to several years ago said that authoritarians around the globe are using Trump’s co-opting of the term “fake news” to drive home their own repressive policies. 

  • Expect to see more of these types of laws. 

Andrew Rosati and Samy Adghirni, Bloomberg News, Angelica Mari, ZDNet

2) Detroit Police Chief Admits 96% Facial Recognition Error Rate

In a public meeting this week, Detroit’s chief of police said the city’s facial recognition system is wildly inaccurate.

  • The police chief,  James Craig, estimated that, if used on its own to identify potential suspects, facial recognition technology, “would not solve the case 95-97 percent of the time.”

  • Facial recognition, Craig added, is just one tool amongst many law enforcement use to narrow down a potential suspect. 

  • According to police data viewed by Motherboard, the DPD has used facial recognition made by the firm DataWorks Plus 70 times. 

    • In 68 of those cases, the individual was black. 

The statement comes a week after an explosive New York Times story claimed to have found the first man jailed because of an incorrect facial recognition match.

  • In that case, a black Detroit man named Robert Julian-Borchak Williams (pictured above) was detained for over 30 hours after Detroit police used facial recognition to match him to someone suspected of robbing a jewelry store. 

News of Williams’ arrest and Craig’s statement on the error rate has elicited outcries from civil liberties groups and spawned new investigations into the technology’s use.

  • “Face recognition surveillance is dangerous when wrong, and dangerous when right,” the ACLU said in a statement

  • “One false match can lead to unnecessary police encounters like interrogation, arrest, or worse.”

Jason Koebler, Vice Motherboard 

3) US Legislators Take on Facial Recognition

A group of house representatives and senators have introduced a bill that would effectively ban feds from using facial recognition.

The bill officially called the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, would essentially ban the use of facial recognition and all other biometric information by members of the US government. 

  • According to the text, the bill, would, “prohibit biometric surveillance by the Federal Government without explicit statutory authorization and to withhold certain Federal public safety grants from State and local governments that engage in biometric surveillance.” 

    • Importantly, the bill excludes the collection of fingerprint and palm prints, biometric markers that have been used by police departments for decades. 

  • The moratorium would extend for an unspecified amount of time and can only be lifted by an act of Congress. 

  • Local governments would not be immune. If passed, the bill would block federal funding for any state or local government that used biometric technology for surveillance purposes. 

The bill was introduced by a group of five Democratic representatives led by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey.

  • “As we work to dismantle the systematic racism that permeates every part of our society, we can’t ignore the harms that these technologies present,” Markey said in a statement to The Daily Dot. 

  • A number of advocacy groups, including Fight for the Future, Color of Change, and MediaJustice have voiced support for the bill. 

Why Now?

  • The bill comes on the tail end of massive protests over police brutality across the country.

  • While protestors have raised many concerns regarding policing, the systematic racial biases in facial recognition algorithms have jumped to the forefront. 

The bill is unlikely to become law as is. 

  • Facial recognition regulation is proving to become yet another political wedge issue with Democrats expressing interest and Republicans largely keeping quiet.

  • With a Republican-controlled Senate, the bill would likely be dead on arrival. 

  • Even if the bill does not pass, it succeeds largely as a symbolic indicator of just how far public mistrust in the community has darkened. 

Andrew Wyrich, The Daily Dot 

4)  Police Monitored the Communications of US Protestors 

Leaked police documents show that Minnesota police used fears of “violent extremists” to justify the monitoring of private communications. 

  • Those details were part of a collection of documents called Blueleaks and were published on the radical transparency site, Distributed Denial of Secrets

    • The site’s founder claims the hacktivist collective Anonymous was responsible for the hack.

Federal agents reportedly collected communications from Slack, Facebook Groups, and private messages.

  • While much of the monitoring occurred on publicly viewable Facebook groups, internal police bulletin documents obtained by The Intercept suggest at least some of the communications viewed were private. 

  • One dispatch from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office on June 1 described a, “private social media chat app” where people talked about attacking National Guard troops.

  • The agencies reportedly tracked Facebook group RSVP’s to real-life protests. 

Mara Hvistendahl, Alleen Brown, The Intercept 

Here’s what else is new

Long Reads/Food for Thought

Why the racism in facial recognition software probably can’t be fixed

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