China: “Xinjiang is the first great model in the era of massive digital surveillance. Nothing like it has ever been seen” | Technology
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Vera Zhou was crossing a street in mid-2019 in Kuitun, a small city in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. She felt a tap on her shoulder. He was a policeman. When she arrived at the barracks she saw her face among the crowd in high definition surrounded by a yellow rectangle. In the rest of the chambers all her faces were green. Zhou had left the area that she was allowed as a former re-education camp inmate. A facial recognition system had detected her among thousands of faces.
Zhou had done nothing. But it was the second time that she had been stopped for a “precrime”, because of the suspicion that she might end up committing a real crime. The first of hers was in 2017, when she returned to China to see her boyfriend while she was studying Geography at the University of Washington (USA). That time the police arrested her for using a VPN (virtual private network, in English). It is a program that is used to connect to the internet from other countries. In China, for example, she couldn’t check her Gmail from university or some social networks. With the VPN, yes. The authorities do not allow it, but they had never persecuted him. Until then.
Zhou’s story is told by American professor Darren Byler in his book In the fields, not yet translated into Spanish. Byler has traveled to Xinjiang several times since he was 20 years old. He is now 40. In his career he has seen how the repression against Uyghurs in China has multiplied. In the last five, the use of technology has become an indispensable resource. “It is the first great model in the era of massive digital surveillance. Nothing like it has ever been seen,” he tells EL PAIS in a video call from Vancouver (Canada), where he teaches at Simon Fraser University.
Reading the book gives a feeling that it is impossible to escape from a regime that forces you to carry a device in your pocket that spies on: what you read, what you search for, what you look at, what you say, where you are. The level of control and submission is unimaginably extraordinary. It is no longer just about elaborate algorithms that allegedly predict future suspects. It is much simpler: you are suspected if you have a religious file or downloaded WhatsApp on your mobile, an application not used in China, where the alternative is the local WeChat.
“There are 75 signs, but they are quite broad,” explains Byler. “Possessing religious or political material is a sign, but they are divided into thousands of different things. In anti-terrorism they look for between 50,000 and 70,000 different markers. At least that’s how they advertise the tool, but I have a feeling they’re also looking for probabilities or partial matches. So it would extend well beyond 75,000 markers, up to millions,” he adds.
Such broad searches have contributed to the fact that there are now more than 1.5 million Uyghurs in re-education camps. Byler also tells testimonies of the horrifying life inside those camps, with abuse, torture and punishment in unsanitary conditions without explanation. Cameras and microphones capable of detecting whispers are part of intensive surveillance.
“A relative of a person I know was arrested because she had photos of young Muslim girls wearing hijab. It was a meme that was sent during Ramadan. Something very innocuous, which would be shared by millions of Muslims around the world, ”adds Byler. The dangers are so widespread that sometimes they simply depend on who has been the previous user of a mobile. Device scanning detects old or deleted files: “They criminalize past behavior, things people did years before, or even previous owners of the phone. If you buy a second-hand phone, you don’t know what the owner was doing before. So if a previous owner had installed WhatsApp, he will show up in one of these scans,” he says.
At first, in Byler’s first visits when mobile and 3G had already spread, the police control was manual: an agent entered some applications and looked at what was there. It was ineffective. Then they moved on to an application and a USB cable to which they connect mobile phones at police checkpoints in the city and with which they can use massive data analysis tools on the mobile’s hard drive.
“Thus they have detected that more than a million and a half people have used some type of application that is now illegal. The most prevalent type of app was called Zapya, which is like Airdrop for Android phones: it’s a phone-to-phone file transfer system using Bluetooth,” explains Byler. “Since they are files that do not go through the internet, the State could not control what people shared. So file sharing is something they are really interested in. Having that as a suspicious marker doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be sent to camp right away or just because of that. But it is something. And if there are other things that show up in your history, whether it’s digital or your social history in general, those things cumulatively can lead to you being labeled as untrustworthy,” he adds.
The alternative to the USB cable is an application similar to those of parental control, which sends the mobile information to Government servers: “It’s called Clean Net Guard and it’s linked to the police database. It collects data from the phone, although we don’t know for sure if everyone has to use that app, but there is plenty of evidence that at least a couple of million people have it installed. It is a built-in spyware by obligation,” he adds. During his visit in 2018, Byler saw that some citizens were given the analysis via USB and others were only looked at if they had the application installed. I can not say why.
One of the goals of the low-level agents who guard these checkpoints is not to bother the millions of non-Muslim Chinese who live in Xinjiang: “If you appear to be non-Muslim, they will wave you through and they won’t check your phone. They do racial profiling based on appearance alone,” he says.
These controls also achieve another sophisticated thing: with facial recognition they verify that each citizen carries their own mobile, which they identify with the MAC address, a unique number of each device: “It also confirms that that person was in that place at that time. So when it gets to the next checkpoint, they can track movement very concretely. It’s multiple forms of verification,” he says.
This omnipotent system has a problem that even China has a hard time executing: it is a huge amount of work and effort. The hope for Byler that this is not replicated in other countries is its size: “There are places in the world that are in the position that the Uyghur region was in 2015, when the scans began. Now it happens in Russia, where the police check the phones to see what applications they have installed, or in Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, also in Kashmir, in India”, he says.
But the difficulty of those places consists in allocating the resources that China has spent in Xinjiang: “What makes it difficult is that a lot of human work is needed to establish and run the physical infrastructure, the checkpoints. You have to hire an army of low-level police to scan people and then have a coercive threat, like a camp, to enforce the system. Even in other parts of China, I think it would be difficult to implement the system on this scale,” explains Byler.
It is in fact such an intrusive system, with so many people allegedly guilty, that sustaining it is complex. The Chinese excuse is its own “war against terrorism”, which in the collective imagination began after the 2001 attacks in the US. “They invested around 100,000 million in the region’s infrastructure. They call it the people’s war on terror. So it’s like a whole-of-society approach to counterterrorism,” he says.
How to lead a normal life
It is also unfortunately very complex for citizens to cope with a relatively normal life with this pressure on them. Part of the Chinese government’s goal is to create the paranoia that every move is tracked. From there it is not long before jumping to each thought. Uyghurs must also use the mobile to follow nationalist directives and approve comments from government leaders. They must be actively pro-government.
“In many cases they are also asked to participate in WeChat groups geared towards political allegiance. They must document their political activity. Each week they must make a certain number of publications, in public or private groups. It is a kind of political performance as a way to show loyalty. These are some of the ways phones are used, but they also try to put them down or turn them off to go to a park close to home to have open conversations with friends or family. Or to a sauna, because it is a space where you cannot take a phone. there are also people they have, non-Muslims, who live in the region, who oppose this control. And they help the Uyghurs to obtain information, they allow them to use their phones, which are not being tracked in the same way, ”explains Byler, in a small sample of how different degrees of normality are maintained in full totalitarian control.
The technology companies that have received part of this Chinese money obviously make an economic profit from their work. But also in the form of data: power train a program on unimaginable scales: “For tech companies, it’s kind of a win-win position because they get the investment and have access to all this data. It is difficult to know exactly what the capabilities of these systems are. Obviously they are sending people to camps or jails for things that are not crimes. But some of this seems to be accelerated by lawsuits or the stress placed on local authorities to detain people. So they need to find terrorists to show that they are doing a good job,” he says.
In the book, Byler explains that there are also American companies that have somehow taken advantage of this wealth of programs. trained with threatened Uyghurs. After the publication of the book, he has had meetings and exchanges with large technology companies such as Google or Microsoft, which have taken some measures not to contribute even involuntarily to this repression.
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