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12 Days In Xinjiang — China’s Surveillance State

Urumqi, China – This city on China’s Central Asia frontier may be one of the most closely surveilled places on earth.

Security checkpoints with identification scanners guard the train station and roads in and out of town. Facial scanners track comings and goings at hotels, shopping malls and banks. Police use hand-held devices to search smartphones for encrypted chat apps, politically charged videos and other suspect content. To fill up with gas, drivers must first swipe their ID cards and stare into a camera.

China’s efforts to snuff out a violent separatist movement by some members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group have turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang, of which Urumqi is the capital, into a laboratory for high-tech social controls that civil-liberties activists say the government wants to roll out across the country.

It is nearly impossible to move about the region without feeling the unrelenting gaze of the government. Citizens and visitors alike must run a daily gantlet of police checkpoints, surveillance cameras and machines scanning their ID cards, faces, eyeballs and sometimes entire bodies.

When fruit vendor Parhat Imin swiped his card at a telecommunications office this summer to pay an overdue phone bill, his photo popped up with an “X.” Since then, he says, every scan of his ID card sets off an alarm. He isn’t sure what it signifies, but figures he is on some kind of government watch list because he is a Uighur and has had intermittent run-ins with the police.

He says he is reluctant to travel for fear of being detained. “They blacklisted me,” he says. “I can’t go anywhere.”

All across China, authorities are rolling out new technology to keep watch over people and shape their behavior. Controls on expression have tightened under President Xi Jinping, and the state’s vast security web now includes high-tech equipment to monitor online activity and even snoop in smartphone messaging apps.

China’s government has been on high alert since a surge in deadly terrorist attacks around the country in 2014 that authorities blamed on Xinjiang-based militants inspired by extremist Islamic messages from abroad. Now officials are putting the world’s most state-of-the-art tools in the hands of a ramped-up security force to create a system of social control in Xinjiang—one that falls heaviest on Uighurs.

At a security exposition in October, an executive of Guangzhou-based CloudWalk Technology Co., which has sold facial-recognition algorithms to police and identity-verification systems to gas stations in Xinjiang, called the region the world’s most heavily guarded place. According to the executive, Jiang Jun, for every 100,000 people the police in Xinjiang want to monitor, they use the same amount of surveillance equipment that police in other parts of China would use to monitor millions.

Authorities in Xinjiang declined to respond to questions about surveillance. Top party officials from Xinjiang said at a Communist Party gathering in Beijing in October that “social stability and long-term security” were the local government’s bottom-line goals.

Chinese and foreign civil-liberty activists say the surveillance in this northwestern corner of China offers a preview of what is to come nationwide.

“They constantly take lessons from the high-pressure rule they apply in Xinjiang and implement them in the east,” says Zhu Shengwu, a Chinese human-rights lawyer who has worked on surveillance cases. “What happens in Xinjiang has bearing on the fate of all Chinese people.”

During an October road trip into Xinjiang along a modern highway, two Wall Street Journal reporters encountered a succession of checkpoints that turned the ride into a strange and tense journey.

At Xingxing Gorge, a windswept pass used centuries ago by merchants plying the Silk Road, police inspected incoming traffic and verified travelers’ identities. The Journal reporters were stopped, ordered out of their car and asked to explain the purpose of their visit. Drivers, mostly those who weren’t Han Chinese, were guided through electronic gateways that scanned their ID cards and faces.

Farther along, at the entrance to Hami, a city of a half-million, police had the Journal reporters wait in front of a bank of TV screens showing feeds from nearby surveillance cameras while recording their passport numbers.

Surveillance cameras loomed every few hundred feet along the road into town, blanketed street corners and kept watch on patrons of a small noodle shop near the main mosque. The proprietress, a member of the Muslim Hui minority, said the government ordered all restaurants in the area to install the devices earlier this year “to prevent terrorist attacks.”

Days later, as the Journal reporters were driving on a dirt road in Shanshan county after being ordered by officials to leave a nearby town, a police cruiser materialized seemingly from nowhere. It raced past, then skidded to a diagonal stop, kicking up a cloud of dust and blocking the reporters’ car. An SUV pulled up behind. A half-dozen police ordered the reporters out of the car and demanded their passports.

An officer explained that surveillance cameras had read the out-of-town license plates and sent out an alert. “We check every car that’s not from Xinjiang,” he said. The police then escorted the reporters to the highway.

At checkpoints further west, iris and body scanners are added to the security arsenal.

Darren Byler, an anthropology researcher at the University of Washington who spent two years in Xinjiang studying migration, says the closest contemporary parallel can be found in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the Israeli government has created a system of checkpoints and biometric surveillance to keep tabs on Palestinians.

In Erdaoqiao, the neighborhood where the fruit vendor Mr. Imin lives, small booths known as “convenience police stations,” marked by flashing lights atop a pole, appear every couple of hundred yards. The police stationed there offer water, cellphone charging and other services, while also taking in feeds from nearby surveillance cameras.

Young Uighur men are routinely pulled into the stations for phone checks, leading some to keep two devices—one for home use and another, with no sensitive content or apps, for going out, according to Uighur exiles.

Erdaoqiao, the heart of Uighur culture and commerce in Urumqi, is where ethnic riots started in 2009 that resulted in numerous deaths. The front entrance to Erdaoqiao Mosque is now closed, as are most entries to the International Grand Bazaar. Visitors funnel through a heavily guarded main gate. The faces and ID cards of Xinjiang residents are scanned. An array of cameras keeps watch.

After the riots, authorities showed up to shut down the shop Mr. Imin was running at the time, which sold clothing and religious items. When he protested, he says, they clubbed him on the back of the head, which has left him walking with a limp. They jailed him for six months for obstructing official business, he says. Other jail stints followed, including eight months for buying hashish.

The police in Urumqi didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Imin now sells fruit and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a cart. He worries that his flagged ID card will bring the police again. Recently remarried, he hasn’t dared visit his new wife’s family in southern Xinjiang.

Chinese rulers have struggled for two millennia to control Xinjiang, whose 23 million people are scattered over an expanse twice the size of Texas. Beijing sees it as a vital piece of President Xi’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” initiative to build infrastructure along the old Silk Road trade routes to Europe.

Last year, Mr. Xi installed a new Xinjiang party chief, Chen Quanguo, who previously handled ethnic strife in Tibet, another hot spot. Mr. Chen pioneered the convenience police stations in that region, partly in response to a string of self-immolations by monks protesting Chinese rule.

Under Mr. Chen, the police presence in Xinjiang has skyrocketed, based on data showing exponential increases in police-recruitment advertising. Local police departments last year began ordering cameras capable of creating three-dimensional face images as well as DNA sequencers and voice-pattern analysis systems, according to government procurement documents uncovered by Human Rights Watch and reviewed by the Journal.

During the first quarter of 2017, the government announced the equivalent of more than $1 billion in security-related investment projects in Xinjiang, up from $27 million in all of 2015, according to research in April by Chinese brokerage firm Industrial Securities .

Government procurement orders show millions spent on “unified combat platforms”—computer systems to analyze surveillance data from police and other government agencies.

Tahir Hamut, a Uighur poet and filmmaker, says Uighurs who had passports were called in to local police stations in May. He worried he would draw extra scrutiny for having been accused of carrying sensitive documents, including newspaper articles about Uighur separatist attacks, while trying to travel to Turkey to study in the mid-1990s. The aborted trip landed him in a labor camp for three years, he says.

He and his wife lined up at a police station with other Uighurs to have their fingerprints and blood samples taken. He says he was asked to read a newspaper for two minutes while police recorded his voice, and to turn his head slowly in front of a camera.

Later, his family’s passports were confiscated. After a friend was detained by police, he says, he assumed he also would be taken away. He says he paid officials a bribe of more than $9,000 to get the passports back, making up a story that his daughter had epilepsy requiring treatment in the U.S. Xinjiang’s Public Security Bureau, which is in charge of the region’s police forces, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the bribery.

“The day we left, I was filled with anxiety,” he says. “I worried what would happen if we were stopped going through security at the Urumqi airport, or going through border control in Beijing.”

He and his family made it to Virginia, where they have applied for political asylum.

Chinese authorities use forms to collect personal information from Uighurs. One form reviewed by the Journal asks about respondents’ prayer habits and if they have contacts abroad. There are sections for officials to rate “persons of interest” on a six-point scale and check boxes on whether they are “safe,” “average” or “unsafe.”

China Communications Services Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of state telecom giant China Telecom , has signed contracts this year worth more than $38 million to provide mosque surveillance and install surveillance-data platforms in Xinjiang, according to government procurement documents. The company declined to discuss the contracts, saying they constituted sensitive business information.

Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co. Ltd. worked with police in Urumqi to adapt a hand-held device it sells for investigating economic crimes so it can scan smartphones for terrorism-related content.

A description of the device that recently was removed from the company’s website said it can read the files on 90% of smartphones and check findings against a police antiterror database. “Mostly, you’re looking for audio and video,” said Zhang Xuefeng, Meiya Pico’s chief marketing officer, in an interview.

Near the Xinjiang University campus in Urumqi, police sat at a wooden table recently, ordering some people walking by to hand over their phones.

“You just plug it in and it shows you what’s on the phone,” said one officer, brandishing a device similar to the one on Meiya Pico’s website. He declined to say what content they were checking for.

One recent afternoon in Korla, one of Xinjiang’s largest cities, only a trickle of people passed through the security checkpoint at the local bazaar, where vendors stared at darkened hallways empty of shoppers.

Li Qiang, the Han Chinese owner of a wine shop, said the security checks, while necessary for safety, were getting in the way of commerce. “As soon as you go out, they check your ID,” he said.

Authorities have built a network of detention facilities, officially referred to as education centers, across Xinjiang. In April, the official Xinjiang Daily newspaper said more than 2,000 people had been sent to a “study and training center” in the southern city of Hotan.

One new compound sits a half-hour drive south of Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners. A slogan painted on the wall reads: “All ethnic groups should be like the pods of a pomegranate, tightly wrapped together.”

Villagers describe it as a detention center. A man standing near the entrance one recent night said it was a school and advised reporters to leave.

Mr. Hamut, the poet, says a relative in Kashgar was taken to a detention center after she participated in an Islamic ceremony, and another went missing soon after the family tried to call him from the U.S.

The local government in Kashgar didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Surveillance in and around Kashgar, where Han Chinese make up less than 7% of the population, is even tighter than in Urumqi. Drivers entering the city are screened intensively. A machine scans each driver’s face. Police officers inspect the engine and the trunk. Passengers must get out and run their bags through X-ray machines.

In Aksu, a dusty city a five-hour drive east of Kashgar, knife salesman Jiang Qiankun says his shop had to pay thousands of dollars for a machine that turns a customer’s ID card number, photo, ethnicity and address into a QR code that it lasers into the blade of any knife it sells. “If someone has a knife, it has to have their ID card information,” he says.

On the last day the Journal reporters were in Xinjiang, an unmarked car trailed them on a 5 a.m. drive to the Urumqi airport. During their China Southern Airlines flight to Beijing, a flight attendant appeared to train a police-style body camera attached to his belt on the reporters. Later, as passengers were disembarking, the attendant denied filming them, saying it was common for airline crew to wear the cameras as a security measure.

China Southern says the crew member was an air marshal, charged with safety on board.

What Makes You Click (2016)

“The biggest psychological experiment ever is being conducted, and we’re all taking part in it: every day, a billion people are tested online. Which ingenious tricks and other digital laws ensure that we fill our online shopping carts to the brim, or stay on websites as long as possible? Or vote for a particular candidate?

The bankruptcies of department stores and shoe shops clearly show that our buying behaviour is rapidly shifting to the Internet. An entirely new field has arisen, of ‘user experience’ architects and ‘online persuasion officers’. How do these digital data dealers use, manipulate and abuse our user experience? Not just when it comes to buying things, but also with regards to our free time and political preferences.

Aren’t companies, which are running millions of tests at a time, miles ahead of science and government, in this respect? Now the creators of these digital seduction techniques, former Google employees among them, are themselves arguing for the introduction of an ethical code. What does it mean, when the conductors of experiments themselves are asking for their power and possibilities to be restricted?”

Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

The Internet of Things is a surveillance nightmare

… or a dream come true for those in power. And those in power are the same entities pushing IoT technologies.

A little background reading about JTRIG from the Snowden documents is helpful. It’s the modern-day equivalent of the Zersetzung—the special unit of the Stasi that was used to attack, repress and sabotage political opponents. A power greatly expanded with a society driven by IoT.

Full article from Daily Dot:

“In 2014, security guru Bruce Schneier said, “Surveillance is the business model of the Internet. We build systems that spy on people in exchange for services. Corporations call it marketing.” The abstract and novel nature of these services tends to obscure our true relationship to companies like Facebook or Google. As the old saying goes, if you don’t pay for a product, you are the product.

But what happens when the Internet stops being just “that fiddly thing with a mouse” and becomes “the real world”? Surveillance becomes the business model of everything, as more and more companies look to turn the world into a collection of data points.

If we truly understood the bargain we were making when we give up our data for free or discounted services, would we still sign on the dotted line (or agree to the Terms and Conditions)? Would we still accept constant monitoring of our driving habits in exchange for potential insurance breaks, or allow our energy consumption to be uploaded into the cloud in exchange for “smart data” about it?

Nowhere is our ignorance of the trade-offs greater, or the consequences more worrisome, than our madcap rush to connect every toaster, fridge, car, and medical device to the Internet.

Welcome to the Internet of Things, what Schneier calls “the World Size Web,” already growing around you as we speak, which creates such a complete picture of our lives that Dr. Richard Tynan of Privacy International calls them “doppelgängers”—mirror images of ourselves built on constantly updated data. These doppelgängers live in the cloud, where they can easily be interrogated by intelligence agencies. Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher at University of California, Berkeley, points out that “Under the FISA Amendments Act 702 (aka PRISM), the NSA can directly ask Google for any data collected on a valid foreign intelligence target through Google’s Nest service, including a Nest Cam.” And that’s just one, legal way of questioning your digital doppelgänger; we’ve all heard enough stories about hacked cloud storage to be wary of trusting our entire lives to it.

 
But with the IoT, the potential goes beyond simple espionage, into outright sabotage. Imagine an enemy that can remotely disable the brakes in your car, or (even more subtly) give you food poisoning by hacking your fridge. That’s a new kind of power. “The surveillance, the interference, the manipulation … the full life cycle is the ultimate nightmare,” says Tynan.

The professional spies agree that the IoT changes the game. “‘Transformational’ is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies,” then CIA Director David Petraeus told a 2012 summit organized by the agency’s venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, “particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft,” according to Wired.

Clandestine tradecraft is not about watching, but about interfering. Take, for example, the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), the dirty tricks division of GCHQ, the British intelligence agency. As the Snowden documents reveal, JTRIG wants to create “Cyber Magicians” who can “make something happen in the real…world,” including ruining business deals, intimidating activists, and sexual entrapment (“honeypots”). The documents show that JTRIG operatives will ignore international law to achieve their goals, which are not about fighting terrorism, but, in fact, targeting individuals who have not been charged with or convicted of any crime.

The Internet of Things “is a JTRIG wet dream,” says security researcher Rob Graham. But you don’t have to be a spy to take advantage of the IoT. Thanks to widespread security vulnerabilities in most IoT devices, almost anyone can take advantage of it. That means cops, spies, gangsters, anyone with the motivation and resources—but probably bored teenagers as well. “I can take any competent computer person and take them from zero to Junior Hacker 101 in a weekend,” says security researcher Dan Tentler. The security of most IoT devices—including home IoT, but also smart cities, power plants, gas pipelines, self-driving cars, and medical devices—is laughably bad. “The barrier to entry is not very tall,” he says, “especially when what’s being released to consumers is so trivial to get into.”

That makes the IoT vulnerable—our society vulnerable—to any criminal with a weekend to spend learning how to hack. “When we talk about vulnerabilities in computers…people are using a lot of rhetoric in the abstract,” says Privacy International’s Tynan. “What we really mean is, vulnerable to somebody. That somebody you’re vulnerable to is the real question.”

“They’re the ones with the power over you,” he added. That means intelligence agencies, sure, but really anyone with the time and motivation to learn how to hack. And, as Joshua Corman of I Am the Cavalry, a concerned group of security researchers, once put it, “There are as many motivations to hacking as there are motivations in the human condition. Hacking is a form of power.”

The authorities want that power; entities like JTRIG, the NSA, the FBI and the DOJ want to be able to not just surveil but also to disrupt, to sabotage, to interfere. Right now the Bureau wants to force Apple to create the ability to deliver backdoored software updates to iPhones, allowing law enforcement access to locally stored, encrypted data. Chris Soghoian, a technologist at the ACLU, tweeted, “If DOJ get what they want in this Apple case, imagine the surveillance assistance they’ll be able to force from Internet of Things companies.”

“The notion that there are legal checks and balances in place is a fiction,” Tynan says. “We need to rely more on technology to increase the hurdles required. For the likes of JTRIG to take the massive resources of the U.K. state and focus them on destroying certain individuals, potentially under flimsy pretenses—I just can’t understand the mentality of these people.”

Defending ourselves in this new, insecure world is difficult, perhaps impossible. “If you go on the Internet, it’s a free-for-all,” Tentler says. “Despite the fact that we have these three-letter agencies, they’re not here to help us; they’re not our friends. When the NSA and GCHQ learn from the bad guys and use those techniques on us, we should be worried.”

If the Internet is a free-for-all, and with the Internet of Things we’re putting the entire world on the Internet, what does that make us?

“Fish in a barrel?”