In most of the world, smartphone apps provide directions, play music and connect friends on social media. In China, apps also are a tool the state uses to control civilians.
Chinese authorities use one app in particular to monitor citizens in Xinjiang, China. It’s known as the IJOP app (Integrated Joint Operations Platform).
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, describes this app as the “central nervous system of surveillance” as it gathers data from various sources of monitoring that China has installed throughout Xinjiang, including closed-circuit and facial recognition cameras.
The Human Rights Watch investigation discovered that the app prompts police to track dozens of pieces of data, everything from profession, religion and height to whether an individual:
- Has recently stopped using a smartphone.
- Went on the Hajj without state authorization.
- Used more electricity than expected.
- Failed to participate in local Communist Party activities.
- Had a relative who was sentenced to death.
Once this information is collected, it is combined with information from facial recognition cameras, police checkpoints, phone scans and online spying. This data is then sent to a Chinese government computer that analyzes the data, flagging individuals it deems potentially threatening.
“If the app decided that your behavior was suspicious, you were going to get a visit from local authorities,” Richardson said August 7 during a U.S. Department of State panel discussion on Chinese repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
This hi-tech monitoring is part of China’s ongoing crackdown on ethnic and religious minorities.
Authorities use the app to help decide whom they send to camps, where Chinese authorities have imprisoned more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other members of ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang since April 2017. There are credible reports of deaths in custody and allegations of forced labor, torture and other degrading treatment in the camps.
China’s tracking of minorities using “pervasive high-tech surveillance” is repressive and draconian, says Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. It “affect[s] every aspect of life for these ethnic minorities.”