Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App
May 7, 2019 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Last week Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report (3-dozen-paragraph summary, full report) based on a tear-down of the government phone app used by Chinese state security forces in Xinjiang provice in the far West of the country, where ethnic Uyghur Muslims are being rounded up into camps by the millions and oppressed based on their ethnicity and religion in many other ways (previously 1, 2, 3.) The examination revealed details of how mass surveillance works in China and specific types of information sought on individuals.
The app also scores government officials on their performance in fulfilling tasks and is a tool for higher-level supervisors to assign tasks to, and keep tabs on the performance of, lower-level officials. The IJOP app, in part, aims to control government officials to ensure that they are efficiently carrying out the government’s repressive orders.
[...]
An examination of the list of research topics [of grants made for study of the Integrated Joint Operations Platform dataset] suggests Chinese police are developing capabilities for ‘reality mining’ that go beyond existing forms of surveillance. By studying how people interact, using data gathered by machines such as their mobile phones or checkpoints—an approach considered more accurate than existing subjective sources for analyzing such interactions—the authorities seemingly hope to be able to understand in a more fine-grained way how people lead their lives: whom they talk to, where they go, and what they do. The goal is apparently to identify patterns of, and predict, the everyday life and resistance of its population, and, ultimately, to engineer and control reality.
There was coverage of the HRW report on today's Democracy Now! (full episode, direct .mp4, alt link, torrents 1, 2, m.)

The app incorporates facial recognition technology from a Chinese company called Face++. Hunter Biden, son of former US vice president Joe Biden, has an investment company called Bohai Harvest RST specializing in China. Bohai Harvest lists Face++ as one of its investments on its web site. The Intercept published an article about this connection and there was an interview with the Intercept author Lee Fang also on today's DN! news.
posted by XMLicious (27 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well. That's terrifying.
posted by odinsdream at 5:26 PM on May 7 [4 favorites]


Boot - ✓
Human face - ✓
Forever - ?
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:30 PM on May 7 [10 favorites]


More like...
Boot ++
Face ++
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:39 PM on May 7 [5 favorites]


I hate all of this. We don't need this. I don't know what else to say anymore.
posted by bleep at 5:49 PM on May 7 [17 favorites]


China is methodically destroying Uighur culture, imprisoning an entire society and demolishing their temples right before our eyes, and nobody is going to do a damn thing to stop it, or even really complain in a noticeable way.

(and, I suppose, with that comment I now find myself barred from entering China again)
posted by aramaic at 6:13 PM on May 7 [22 favorites]


Is Chinese-style surveillance coming to the west? (Chip Rolley, Guardian Opinion)
The Chinese model is now being exported – and the results could be terrifying
Wired magazine has reported that China is “exporting its techno-dystopian model to other counties … Since January 2017, Freedom House counted 38 countries where Chinese firms have built internet infrastructure, and 18 countries using AI surveillance developed by the Chinese.”

[...] The dangers these trends pose are shown to be at their peak with tech’s willingness to divulge our data or attempt to sway aspects of our personal lives and political opinions. We saw this with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, as exposed by Carole Cadwalladr, and the allowance of targeted disinformation campaigns.

What is happening in Orwellian China today is a warning to us in the west that the freedoms we have so blithely taken for granted are already being compromised by the behavior of social media giants and other tech companies. The authoritarian impulses behind such control have already seeped into the American political system and without greater vigilance, and a willingness to fight back, we all may be subject to surveillance on a Chinese scale.
posted by Little Dawn at 6:20 PM on May 7 [20 favorites]


Gir_doom_song.wav
posted by wordless reply at 8:10 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]


On second thought, I feel bad for being glib. Thank you for posting this article.
posted by wordless reply at 8:26 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]


I've been speculating for a few years now that periods of human development are always named after the material used for the dominating weapons of war for the time. The Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, the Atomic Age...and now the Information Age.
posted by rhizome at 9:40 PM on May 7 [23 favorites]


For more work on reverse engineering China's surveillance state see also this fascinating paper on the social credit system from this year's FAT*.
posted by potrzebie at 9:48 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]


The West's equivalent of Chinese Social Credit might end up being Facebook or some similar company trying to prove that it can be a constructive force for good.
posted by acb at 12:59 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


This isn't the first time I've seen the name Hunter Biden in connection with dodgy dealings with dodgy regimes. I read a book called Moneyland last year which said that Hunter was inexplicably on the board of directors of a corrupt Ukrainian oligarch/politician's oil company, in spite of the fact that he has no experience in either oil or Ukraine.

The man keeps questionable friends.
posted by winterhill at 1:57 AM on May 8 [6 favorites]


Some shoddy code here in the thread.

While face.isHuman
{
boot.stamp(this.face);
}
posted by Paladin1138 at 6:14 AM on May 8 [7 favorites]


Nosedive

At what point do we actually take heed from our fiction and current reality and put a stop to nonsense? These things are not supposed to be instruction manuals... Or do we care, as long as we can buy the next shiny thing?

And hence, everything... our culture, our leadership, our politics, our financial systems is completely geared towards keeping consumption capitalism going - and we just conveniently sweep dirty things under the rug of "other countries", like China. If they don't enforce their system, it will crash down - and then ours will as well.
posted by jkaczor at 6:20 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


So, in the not-distant future, the battle will be between state dictatorships (the china model) or corporate dictatorships (the us model)?

.............
The West's equivalent of Chinese Social Credit might end up being Facebook or some similar company trying to prove that it can be a constructive force for good.

You don't say?
posted by Thorzdad at 6:45 AM on May 8 [6 favorites]


At what point do we actually take heed from our fiction and current reality and put a stop to nonsense?

Bloke in a barrel over here says he's fascinated by your ideas and wishes to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by flabdablet at 6:46 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]


heh... thanks flabdablet - TIL, "same as it ever was"
posted by jkaczor at 7:45 AM on May 8


The difference between this, Facebook , and data brokers is just branding .
posted by freecellwizard at 8:10 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


I've been speculating for a few years now that periods of human development are always named after the material used for the dominating weapons of war for the time.

Well, mebbe. There was no Gunpowder Age and the Space Age is an uncomfortable fit. I think its more that warfare gets the lion's share of the investment in early-stage new materials science.

I would also point out that if you haven't, you should read IBM And The Holocaust as a case study in how information technology developed in a democracy is used to make money off the back of totalitarian atrocities for Western industrial capitalists. You may know that IBM provided the infomration infrastructure for the Holocaust, you may not know that it invested heavily in making it happen, consistently found ways to continue providing and supporting the tech during the way despite 'trading with the enemy' laws, and was active in pushing its tech into Poland, France, the Netherlands and Romania.

Every death camp had its Hollerith Office.

Nobody from IBM was ever held accountable.

So, no, this is nothing new - except the technology is now infinitely more powerful and pervasive.
posted by Devonian at 8:49 AM on May 8 [14 favorites]


The West's equivalent of Chinese Social Credit might end up being Facebook or some similar company trying to prove that it can be a constructive force for good.

Social Credit is already based on the West's version: Your credit score.
posted by srboisvert at 8:53 AM on May 8 [7 favorites]


TIL, "same as it ever was"

I've been thinking about that lately.

It's long been the case that as human beings reach our senior years we start bemoaning the state of the world in general and grumpily complaining about everything going to hell. But what brought me up short the other day was hearing my about-to-turn-21 daughter describing the state of things in much the same way, specifically citing the changes she's seen in people since social media became a thing.

When old and young start agreeing that the world is going all to shit, it might perhaps not be same as it ever was.
posted by flabdablet at 9:25 AM on May 8 [7 favorites]


There was no Gunpowder Age and the Space Age is an uncomfortable fit. I think its more that warfare gets the lion's share of the investment in early-stage new materials science.

I think investment is a natural driver, but as far as your exceptions go (and to pull a derail back), there does appear to be a Gunpowder age, which I suspect spans such a long period that it's hard to delineate.

More apt though, is the Space Age, which enabled the satellite reconnaissance that is now augmented by the hand-held sensors we all carry in our pockets here and in China. In that way I suppose the Space and Information Ages exist with some overlap, but still hand-in-hand. See also: Machine Age.

Also, I just learned that the Stone-Bronze-Iron Age trio is a thing unto itself, which I suppose is why we learn about it as a primary thing.

So the world's been building up to this environment where every person has a file, and not only that, but that file doesn't even have to be maintained since it can be constructed in arrears, after someone decides it should exist and scoops up that person's history as far back as exists. Not to mention that in 50 years just about every living person will have been living their entire lives under data collection.

Is Chinese-style surveillance coming to the west? (Chip Rolley, Guardian Opinion)

It's already here, just not evenly distributed.
posted by rhizome at 9:29 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


Not to abuse the edit window, we also might reflect on some results of the proto-feminist growth in independence of women in the Western Hemisphere in the 19th Century, and how their increasing ability to leave the house and have lives of their own parallelled the growth of modern gynecology (surveillance, mapping) and handbag fashion (the ability to carry your life with you).

China may be doing this in terms of global independence not for a sex, but a citizenry.
posted by rhizome at 9:41 AM on May 8


Huh... From my understanding of the tech, it's making inferences of individual affiliation based on connections established by action instead of through social graphs. This has also become a trend in education research through a method called epistemic network analysis, where a domain of learning is mapped into a series of actions (e.g. cooking can be mapped into measuring, using the oven, sauteeing, chopping). Participant activity is then coded within these actions, and time series analysis occurs to see which actions they take closely to one another, and this gives positionality to where they fall in the graph. So in the example of cooking, if someone chops and sautees a lot they might be a sous chef and will fall into the range of those nodes - if someone measures and uses the oven a lot, they might be a baker, and would fall around those nodes on the graph. Given enough data you could then use this to make predictions on what sort of cook someone is based solely on their action. The idea in education research is to track individuals through educational scenarios, typically games and simulations, and see how they change over time on the graph. If you teach your sous chef to make cakes, you might see their position move closer to the baker region.

Anyway, this has long struck me as an excellent surveillance tool, because it specifically focuses on action, which is hard to fake. You can juke social network analysis to some extent, but if the state can make correct inferences from action and act on them (or front that they can), then that is both more effective from an intelligence standpoint and also from a suppression standpoint. From the metaphor of the panopticon it's not even doing stuff publically, but invisible.metrics like electricity usage that give you away.
posted by codacorolla at 3:54 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]


There was no Gunpowder Age and the Space Age is an uncomfortable fit.

FWIW, the Space Age was also often referred to as the Atomic Age, so...
posted by Thorzdad at 5:59 PM on May 8


Every death camp had its Hollerith Office.

Just to completely close the loop on this, Hollerith cards are those punched cards computer people used to use for data entry. The tattoos the Jews were given were basically serial numbers that matched numbers on the cards. It was all done to automate keeping track of the Jews as the Nazis routed them around the Reich to the camps & ultimately their death.
posted by scalefree at 11:08 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Able-bodied people were also moved around to be used as slave labor in Nazi Germany, often worked to death in attempts to meet military deadlines.
posted by XMLicious at 11:11 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


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