According to Human Rights Watch, police in the Chinese province of Xinjiang use a master list of 50,000 multimedia files that they label “violent and terrorist” to identify Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim citizens for questioning.
A Human Rights Watch forensic study of the metadata of this list revealed that in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, which has 3.5 million citizens, authorities searched 1.2 million mobile phones in total during the nine months between 2017 and 2018. This phone search was made possible by the automated police mass surveillance systems in Xinjiang.
“Uyghurs who merely store the Quran on their phone may trigger a police interrogation,” said Maya Wang, acting China director for Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government’s abusive use of surveillance technology in Xinjiang means that Uyghurs who simply store the Quran on their phone may trigger a police interrogation.” “Concerned governments should identify the technology companies involved in this industry of mass surveillance and social control and take appropriate action to end their involvement.”
Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns about China’s strategy for combating what it terms “terrorism” and “extremism” on several occasions. The extremely broad and ambiguous definitions of “terrorism” and “extremism” in China’s counterterrorism legislation make it easier to prosecute, imprison, and impose other limitations on people who do actions for political, religious, or ideological reasons but do not intend to kill or seriously hurt others.
Over 1,400 Urumqi people’ phones were searched by Human Rights Watch, and they discovered over 1,000 unique files that matched those on the police master list. According to a review of these matching files, 57 percent of them seem to be popular Islamic religious texts, including readings of each surah (chapter) of the Quran, Islam’s primary holy scripture.
The list is a portion of a large database (52GB) including more than 1,600 data tables from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that was disclosed to the American news outlet the Intercept in 2019. According to The Intercept, Urumqi police used texts of police reports that were a part of this database to conduct surveillance and make arrests between 2015 and 2019 in the city.
Human Rights Watch looked at a master list of multimedia files that are placed in a separate area of the same database and have not been previously disclosed or reviewed. In order to prevent the authorities from tracing the source of the leak, some of the figures in this reporting have been rounded up.
Photo, audio, and video files with violent content are found in this master list’s metadata analysis, along with other materials that don’t seem to have anything to do with violence. The media files include content that:
are violent or gory, including material showing beheadings or other types of torture that seem to have been carried out by armed organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS), Chechen fighters, Mexican drug cartels, or other cartels;
include international groups, such as Radio Free Asia, a media source supported by the US government, the World Uyghur Congress, a group controlled by Uyghur exiles, and the East Turkistan Independence Movement, which the Chinese government calls a separatist movement;
include multimedia materials in favor of democracy, such as the documentary “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which tells the story of the 1989 massacre of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese government; Mention the names of Syrian cities, as well as two episodes from 2015 of the well-known Chinese-language travel program “On the Road” () that make mention of the Syrian crisis; The identical MD5 hashes, which serve as these files’ distinctive signatures, were located on another comparable list that Human Rights Watch discovered in the database. This list seems to include the search results from the surveillance app Jingwang Weishi. The 9-month period between 2017 and 2018 covered by the search results. According to this data, the software secretly carried out about 11 million searches on 1.2 million phones and discovered a total of 11,000 matches of more than 1,000 distinct files on 1,400 phones.
One thousand files, or about 57 percent of them, include readings of every chapter (surah) of the Quran, according to Human Rights Watch’s study of the file names and the police’s own labeling, or coding.
Almost 9% of the matching files include violent material, including crimes perpetrated by ISIS militants; 4% of the matched files contain appeals for violence, such as by advocating “jihad;”
28 percent of the files that were matched could not be recognized using just the information that was provided (such as the file name and police labels).
Further research was conducted by Human Rights Watch on the 1,400 phones that the police had flagged:
Nearly 42% of phones had graphic or violent content; 13% had common Islamic religious content; 6% had overtly political content, like a song for “East Turkistan” (the name some Turkic Muslims use for the area the Chinese government refers to as “Xinjiang”), videos of the Syrian war, and images of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong; and 4% had content that encouraged violence, such as slurs and death threats.
A whopping 48% of phones had files on them that Human Rights Watch was unable to identify.
Governments are required by international law to clearly identify criminal crimes and to uphold the freedoms of speech and thinking, including the right to hold opinions that are deemed objectionable. A particularly serious danger to freedom of thought, privacy, and speech is the criminalization of just having material that is considered extreme, even if the accused has no desire to use it to hurt others. These rights are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which China has signed but not ratified.
Human Rights Watch urged the UN Human Rights Council to immediately launch an impartial, international inquiry into serious human rights abuses and the Chinese government’s repression of basic freedoms against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Such action has been advised by an unprecedented number of UN independent human rights experts and hundreds of nonprofit groups from across the globe.
Wang said that the Chinese government “conflates Islam with violent extremism in an absurd but dangerous way to excuse its heinous crimes against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. “The UN Human Rights Council should finally act by looking into abuses committed by the Chinese government in Xinjiang and elsewhere.”
Please refer to the details below for further information on the scenario and conclusions.
Mass surveillance’s role in Xinjiang abuse
The Counterterrorism Law of the Chinese government has repeatedly been violated and does not comply with international human rights norms.
The “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” () by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims started in May 2014 in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This offensive effort, which equates Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims’ peaceful religious and cultural manifestations with terrorism, has considerably intensified since 2017.
Human Rights Watch has reported widespread arbitrary imprisonment in large numbers, extensive monitoring, and efforts at eradicating cultural and religious traditions that constitute crimes against humanity in the area at this time. The UN human rights office published a ground-breaking study in 2022 that said that these actions “may constitute crimes against humanity.”
The employment of modern technology, such as the widespread gathering of biometric data from Turkic Muslims, artificial intelligence, police applications, and big-data platforms to monitor the whole community, is at the heart of these crimes. consuming arbitrary and broad criteria, such as consuming excessive amounts of power, these programs identify individuals as possibly “untrustworthy” and report them to the authorities. Then, after hasty, secret tribunals without access to counsel, the police question them, often hold them in “political education camps,” or sentence them to jail sentences. After the crackdown, an estimated 500,000 individuals were still incarcerated as of September 2022.Many of these systems have been discovered since 2017 by Human Rights Watch and other groups, although it is still unclear how they are related specifically. According to the Intercept, the Chinese surveillance technology firm Landasoft () created the iTap police surveillance system specifically for the Urumqi Police Department. According to Landasoft’s CEO, the business aspires to be the “Chinese version of Palantir,” a US firm that offers analytical and profiling tools to law enforcement and intelligence organizations throughout the world.
The software enables the police to keep an eye on every resident of Urumqi, including revealing people’s hidden relationships through network analysis, thanks to the massive amounts of information on each individual and the integration of their contacts, location, vehicle information, financial accounts, and internet accounts – all without their consent.
This study has shown for the first time that the Jingwang Weishi and Fengcai applications are sending data to iTap. Human Rights Watch contacted Landasoft on April 4 on this database; however, they have not heard back.
In China, police are reportedly checking people’s phones abusively in order to identify those responsible for the December 2022 “white paper” protests, in which participants held blank signs as a symbol of their opposition to the government’s stringent Covid-19 regulations or the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. In order to further its harsh assimilationist goals, the government has also carried out similar inspections in Tibetan communities. But in some instances, it seems like the cops are manually searching through people’s phones.
In order to combat online fraud, contain the COVID epidemic, and disseminate its ideology, the Chinese government has also increased the requirements for installing numerous government and Communist Party applications throughout the country. The usage and storage of a lot of these applications’ extensive personal data collection, which often includes location data, health data, and other identifying information like national ID numbers, is not always clear.
At the same time, Chinese authorities have forced app shops to delete applications they find objectionable, including censorship-bypassing tools, encryption tools, and apps for religion, including a well-known Quran app used by millions of people worldwide.
Authenticating the Leaked Database: A Methodology
As of March 2018, the master list discovered by Human Rights Watch in the stolen database has a total of about 50,000 rows, with each entry containing metadata like the file’s name, size, extension (such as mp3), and MD5 hash, which the police use to identify files on citizens’ phones.
Human Rights Watch has discovered that the MD5 hashes in this list match those in prior lists published by two other groups, who independently looked into two police applications used by the government of Xinjiang during crackdowns:
Jingwang Weishi (), an app that Urumqi police coerced locals to use, was reverse-engineered by the US-based Open Technology Fund (OTF) in February 2018. The Open Technology Fund discovered that the app also checks the target phone against a list of MD5 hashes and automatically reports any files deemed “dangerous” to the authorities, in addition to extracting the phone’s various identifying information such as its brand and model, IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity), IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity), address, and phone number.
Another list of MD5 hashes derived from another software called Fengcai, which the Xinjiang police frequently placed on visitors’ phones during border crossings, was made public by the New York Times’ reverse engineering work in July 2019. There were 73,314 different MD5 hashes in this list. The bulk of the hashes that Human Rights Watch looked at are also included in this list, indicating that over 21,000 multimedia files had been added to the list of “violent and terrorist” materials by the Xinjiang police in only one year, between 2018 and 2019. There were just 29 files from the Human Rights Watch list that were excluded from the New York Times analysis.
It is possible that the Xinjiang authorities use this same list as a master list to determine whether a resident has what they consider to be “violent and terrorist files” on their device given that this same list of 50,000 files is present in two different policing apps tailored specifically for Xinjiang and in this leaked database.
Human Rights Watch concluded that the related list in the leaked database, which has the same MD5 hashes as the master list, contains the search results from the Jingwang Weishi app because its format exactly matches the output format described in that app’s reverse engineering. The search results include each phone’s unique identifiers (IMEI, IMSI, and MAC addresses) and, if the “violent and terrorist” file was located, its name, size, and file type.
Punishing ‘Extremist’ Material Possession
According to evidence from leaked government lists of such individuals and prior Human Rights Watch interviews with family members and former prisoners, many of the persons arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned in Xinjiang were picked up for having “violent” or “terrorist” multimedia content.
Human Rights Watch obtained a leaked list of more than 2,000 detainees from a political education camp in Aksu Prefecture in 2018, and it revealed that about 10% (over 200) of them were being held for “terrorism” or “extremism” because they had downloaded or shared such “violent and terrorist” multimedia content, or because they were related to someone who had done so.
A 60-year-old father who had transmitted an audio of an Islamic religious instruction to his daughter, who then sent it to a friend, was one of the inmates kept in a police detention center cell during the crackdowns, according to a Uyghur interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2018. The father and daughter, who claimed that inmates at these institutions were tortured, were given jail terms of six and three years, respectively.