China’s Attempt to Spy on Uyghurs at Home and Abroad | Opinion
Newsweek. 27 April 2021
Below is an article published by Newsweek. Photo:AFP.
China today hosts a complex web of surveillance systems to keep track of its citizens and critics, both at home and abroad. Not only does the Chinese state operate multiple systems to maintain surveillance on its citizens, but it also tasks private companies working in China to further enhance its network of human and technical spies.
Scores from China, including Uyghurs living abroad, face surveillance and find their families in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) occupied East Turkistan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) or Xinjiang, being threatened to cooperate with the Chinese state.
Recently, another interesting fact on this subject came to light. IPVM, a surveillance industry publication shared information with The New York Times about Alibaba’s website for its cloud computing business, showing how clients could use its software to detect the faces of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples via images and videos. This feature was built into Alibaba software, helping web platforms monitor digital content for material related to “terrorism, pornography and other red-flag categories.” All Chinese companies are bound by law to work for the Chinese state and provide services, including those which assist in monitoring and persecuting the Uyghurs. When the NYT asked Alibaba about the tool, the company edited its website and removed the references to Uyghur and other Turkic faces. Alibaba has not revealed why it created the software in the first place, even if it was meant for testing.
Kingsoft Cloud, another Chinese cloud provider, described its website technology as being able to use an image of a face to predict “race,” among other attributes. According to a page on Kingsoft Cloud’s website discovered by IPVM and shared with the NYT, the company’s software could evaluate whether a person’s race was “Uyghur” or “non-Uyghur.” When the NYT asked Kingsoft Cloud about the software, the company removed those pages from its website. In a written statement, Kingsoft Cloud said that the tool in question was never been sold to customers and that it had not been able to distinguish Uyghur faces. The company said that the software slipped past the company’s internal review processes and that the company was evaluating those mechanisms to ensure proper oversight.
Surveillance technology has been crucial to China’s efforts to monitor and track ethnic peoples within China. The Uyghurs in East Turkistan are ethnically and racially different from the majority Han population and do stand out, making it easier for software to pick out their faces. The Washington Post reported that Huawei, another Chinese technology giant, tested software that could automatically alert the police when its surveillance cameras detected Uyghur faces. French soccer player Antoine Griezmann responded to this news by cutting ties with the company as a brand ambassador.
China’s facial recognition system logs nearly every single citizen inside China, with a vast network of cameras across the country. A 2019 leak revealed that pervasive Chinese surveillance tools contained more than 6.8 million records in a single day. That China uses this technology to monitor the Uyghurs was made clear in March 2020, when a bipartisan group of 17 U.S. senators wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating that “China use[s] facial recognition to profile Uyghur individuals, classify them on the basis of their ethnicity, and single them out for tracking, mistreatment, and detention.”
China’s long spying arms have reached beyond its borders. Facebook found a sophisticated espionage campaign conducted by Chinese hackers that tried to trick pro-Uyghur activists around the world into downloading malicious software that would allow surveillance of their devices. The operation, which was attributed by Facebook to a known Chinese hacking group, created fake versions of news websites popular in Uyghur communities and encrypted them with malicious software.
Users who clicked on the sites would then unknowingly download the malware, allowing hackers access to their devices. In other times, the hackers hid malware in certain pages of websites that are frequently visited by their targets and in malicious apps they created in fake versions of app stores. It was revealed that the number of targets were less than 500 across the world.
It is yet to be determined that out of these targets how many actually were hacked. The victims were mostly Uyghur dissidents, journalists and activists from East Turkistan who are now based outside of China, in areas including the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, among others. Fake accounts on Facebook that impersonated journalists, students and human rights activists and other Uyghur community members were used to share links to the malware filled sites and apps.
The malware strains used by hackers had different capabilities from allowing attackers to monitor phone use to being able to turn on a device’s camera and microphone. Facebook said it was taking action to stop the network, by blocking its infrastructure and any malicious links posted on its platform. The victims are also being alerted. Two Chinese vendors—Beijing Best United Technology and Dalian 9Rush Technology—were behind the development of the malware tools.
Technology is undoubtedly an enabler in many respects, but in China’s case, it is enabling the Chinese state and the Communist Party of China to track, monitor and persecute civilians, in particular Uyghur, Kazkahs and other Turkic peoples.
Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his dream of rejuvenating the nation by pushing for science and technology advancements for the next 15 years. China launched a massive campaign to achieve this strategic goal, to become the world’s primary center for science and technology, and commanding heights for innovation.
If it succeeds, China will not only perpetuate its dictatorship, control the world’s economic supply chains but also peoples’ minds through its advanced digital dictatorship, which will put the whole of liberal democracy in grave danger. The free world must work together to find effective solutions to defeat China’s digital dictatorship and stop it before it’s exported to the world.
A “free world” should mean there are no camps, no forced labor factories, no cultural and religious repression, no arbitrary arrests, no police brutality and no genocide.