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Data Policing: New Chinese algorithms to brand Uyghur 'extremists'

Digitisation is a double-edged sword; on one hand, it makes your life hassle-free while on the other it puts a tab on your privacy. Uyghurs are witnessing the second part which puts a check on their privacy.

ANI | California | Updated: 09-10-2020 15:27 IST | Created: 09-10-2020 15:27 IST
Data Policing: New Chinese algorithms to brand Uyghur 'extremists'
Representative Image.. Image Credit: ANI

Digitisation is a double-edged sword; on one hand, it makes your life hassle-free while on the other it puts a tab on your privacy. Uyghurs are witnessing the second part which puts a check on their privacy. In recent years, the Beijing government has begun using technology to conduct its own kind of genocide. By putting Xinjiang under a grid management system, China is now able to control every aspect of Uyghur's life.

A new digital forensics tools built by the Chinese tech giant Meiya Pico is helping the Dragon in its nefarious design against the Uyghurs. They are used to feed data about the digital histories of individuals into a region-wide system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). The IJOP identified suspects for local police departments based on patterns of suspicious behaviours and data it detected through surveillance systems. The handheld devices and software systems scan through smartphones and other electronic devices in less than two minutes, attempts to match materials to a base dataset of as many as 53,000 flagged audio, video, picture, and text files that had been deemed related to religious extremism or terrorism. The Meiya Pico systems cracked the codes of private social media, email, and instant messaging applications to assess the phone owner's digital history and social network.

In a case study done by Darren Byler, an Uyghur youth Baimurat was recruited as an 'assistant police' by Public Security Bureau in Qitai County. It was a type of citizen policing role that the authorities described as a kind of supermarket or mall security guard position. He was recruited because of his qualifications and his Chinese language skills. Other Uyghur youth recruited were put through several weeks of boot camp. At first, it seemed too good to be true. Baimurat was given the highest possible salary of nearly 6,000 Yuan, or USD 1,000, per month -- much higher than the minimum wage of around 2,000 Yuan. But all his dreams were shattered when he discovered the fact that he was being used to spy upon his own people through the use of technology. The study vividly covers the journey of Uyghurs branded as 'extremists' by the Dragon (China). "We were given police uniforms, and then we started doing different kinds of training. It was really strict as if we were planning for war", said Baimurat.

Uyghur and Kazakh Muslim populations are the groups that are targeted by the system. The job of these 'assistant police' was to watch cameras, perform spot checks of Muslim young people, and demand that they provide their state-issued ID and their phones for inspection via spyware apps and scanning devices. These young, low-wage workers were also responsible for monitoring face-scanning machines and metal detectors at fixed checkpoints said the author Darren Byler. The Chinese state media began to represent Uyghurs and Kazakhs as 'venomous snakes' and 'disease-carrying insects' that needed to be exterminated, or as demons ridden with the metastasizing cancer of extremism, reported Noema.

The Chinese government began to identify 'signs' of Islamic extremism, including possessing digital files with Islamic content and using virtual private networks, as pre-criminal markers of terrorism 'intent.' Policing relied in part on netizens who were willing to report other internet users for cybercrimes. Local authorities offered rewards for reporting 'extremist, terrorist or separatist' online behaviour that resulted in detentions, reported Noema. By combining this data with information collected through interrogations, the system helped to determine which Muslims were 'untrustworthy' and in need of further investigation. In just two years, nearly 350,000 people in the region were convicted of criminal offenses and given prison terms. Between 900,000 to 1.5 million more were sent to a newly organised network of reeducation camps to be cleansed of ideological 'viruses' of extremist thoughts, said Darren Byler.

Over 90,000 police contractors were hired to build and staff this network. Many were deputized young men like Baimurat and thus the dataset grew. Algorithms that 'identified,' extremism were honed. And a digital enclosure tightened over everyday life, reported Noema. As the scholar Lilly Irani has noted, cutting-edge algorithms built by tech conglomerates around the world are often managed and monitored by low-wage technicians. Much of this work is done through platforms like the Amazon-hosted contractor network called Mechanical Turk. These 'data janitors,' as Irani refers to them, train software to recognize and digitize material objects, behaviours, and people.

Soon after Baimurat was hired, local authorities started building 'convenience police stations,' a type of surveillance hub set up every several hundred yards at intersections and entrances to parks, banks, shopping malls, and other high-traffic areas. Then, Baimurat and the other contractors were divided up and stationed in the different stations. Across the region, at least 7,700 such stations were built. Inside these structures were banks of TV monitors that showed dozens of camera views. Some of the cameras were moveable using a little joystick, and the contractors could zoom in on faces.

Baimurat said that, at first, their assignment was just to watch the monitors. They themselves were being watched by multiple cameras in a centralised command centre. "If we stopped looking, we would be punished," he said. Over time, the kind of surveillance they did began to shift. First, the contractors would be sorted based on their Chinese language ability and knowledge of counterterrorism laws. "They made us do other exercises like reciting rules about participating in the camp system," Baimurat recalled. "We had to learn these by heart."

Then, around the middle of 2017, they were tasked with actively fine-tuning the programming of the system using assessment tools called 'counterterrorism swords'. The work the data police did not only affect the people it targets but also affects the data police themselves. Xinjiang data police like Baimurat suffer from traumatic stress disorders.

The justice for data policing in China is not simply a question of better work conditions or the freedom to quit. They exemplify a more fundamental question of whether people are the authors of their own lives, reported Noema. (ANI)


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