Published Nov. 29, 2017
Huge amounts of personal data collected on individuals in China with the stated aim of crime prevention threatens restive ethnic minorities and anyone linked to people identified as political dissidents. This warning comes from the respected international organization Human Rights Watch and is based on extensive research. According to HRW, China’s provinces are using big data analytics and "cloud computing-based systems" to connect disparate databases and share citizens’ personal information. HRW analyzed tender documents from police bureaus
in the populous northern coastal city of Tianjin as well as the provinces of Shandong and Jiangsu for the so-called Police Cloud System. The rights’ organization chose to study these particular police bureaus because they make their tender documents publicly available. The Ministry of Public Security co-ordinates information
collected locally and nationally under the Police Cloud system. People’s personal history — including their purchases and medical records — is linked to their national identity numbers. This allows authorities to track the whereabouts of individuals and predict their future activities. Maya Wang, a HRW senior researcher, said the Police Cloud is dangerous because it allows authorities to scoop up vast amounts of information. Ethnic minorities are vulnerable to such snooping, particularly Muslim Uyghurs
seen by authorities as having foreign links. The Uyghur population in China has linguistic and ethnic ties with Turkey, where there is a militant anti-Chinese Uyghur refugee population as well as locally born Uyghurs. Other ethnic minorities in China, such as Tibetan Buddhists, are also at risk from the Police Cloud form of monitoring. As well as being employed for genuinely criminal matters, people considered a political threat could be targeted. "The scary thing about the Police Cloud is that it also determines guilt by association," Wang warned.
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More attention was paid to those found to have links to others already identified as a security threat. "In other words, it’s a dangerous black box, with no accountability and no redress," Wang said. The Police Cloud System is also being developed to monitor drug users and people with mental health problems. While there is no evidence yet that China plans to export its Police Cloud system, some experts fear this will happen in the future as China increases its global economic and strategic reach. China has already sold its CCTV technology, along with facial recognition applications, to clients abroad. While clients have mostly been developing countries, the US and the UK have bought Chinese CCTV systems. Chinese companies can produce this type of technology cheaply, making it attractive to foreign buyers. Timothy Heath, Senior International Defense Research Analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that police could already access data on individuals from diverse sources in China. "Developing programs that can analyze the data and make judgments only requires modifications to software that is already available," he said. Results could be "disseminated" to the mobile communications systems of police officers. According to the HRW investigation, the cloud platforms will use not only routinely gathered information pertaining to religion, addresses, family relations and birth control methods. It will also trace hotel, flight and train records, biometrics, CCTV footage, and information from both government departments and private companies. "Minorities and individuals curious enough to explore information sources not approved by the government will be at higher risk of being arrested by the police for acts they may or may not have committed," Heath said. HRW found the Police Cloud in Shandong province’s capital, Jinan, will alert the police of any activity considered unusual, which could include when a citizen frequently stayed in the same hotel. In Shandong’s Weihai city, the Police Cloud will aggregate citizen’s social media usernames, their personal medical records, and any data from package delivery companies. "An ironic outcome may be that the government undermines its own popular support and security," Heath said. "Not only is it possible that people may grow to resent the intrusiveness, but the very ability to target critics of the government could blind government officials to real defects in governance." Heath also said there is a danger that China will eventually market the Police Cloud system to partner countries along the nation’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to expand the nation’s trade routes into the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Countries along the expanded trade route will need to be highly digitized to adopt the technology. It is likely China may tap in to their need to enhance security, especially if those countries are authoritarian. "The result could be a net erosion in human rights world wide," Heath said. China has no enforceable laws that protect the privacy of its citizens from the government.