China’s dystopian cyber surveillance encouraging human rights violations



Coming on the heels of its intensified crackdown the residents of Xinjiang province, recent reporting from The New York Times has revealed a much expanded surveillance by the authorities on Uighur Muslims. As per the NYT, the Chinese government has poured considerable resources expanding the scope of surveillance to include Uighur diaspora in other countries. This diaspora mostly residing in the Western countries has been a source of concern for Beijing particularly because of its vocal opposition to the Chinese policies in Xinjiang and their ability to mobilise attention in major capitals around the world. In fact, in the past, authorities in Xinjiang have sent many Uighurs to the internment camps, because their relatives have travelled or resided abroad.

The Chinese surveillance effort is particularly directed at the diaspora with state-sponsored hackers exploiting software vulnerabilities in Google and Apple iPhones. In September 2019, Google security researchers found some malicious websites, which when visited could hack into the targeted users’ phones, using the zero-day vulnerability. In the process, the attacker got access to the hacked phones’ messages, passwords, and could track their location in near-real time. As per apple, there were about dozen malicious websites focusing on Uighurs, which sustained this activity. Apple subsequently patched the vulnerability by giving a software update, but prior to that this hacking activity apparently lasted for at least two years. Similar attempts have also been noted on the Android devices. Beyond this advanced hacking, the Chinese police have also made less sophisticated efforts to control Uighurs who have fled, using the WeChat messenger app to entice them to return home or to threaten their families.

But it appears that ethnic Uighur minorities are not the only ones to be targeted. Other reports have noted similar efforts to target the Tibetan community by using a vulnerability in WhatsApp messenger service. Canada-based Citizen Lab has reported that it had worked with the recently established Tibetan Computer Emergency Readiness Team to investigate cyber-attacks which occurred between November 2018 and May 2019.

Some reports had also noted that more than 30 military and government agencies had deployed bird-like drones and related devices for keeping a tab on people’s movements. Xinjiang’s cyber surveillance is combined with unprecedented level of mobilisation to physically monitor people’s activities including through intrusive programs in which officials regularly stay in people’s homes.

All this has contributed to the unprecedented human rights violations in China with international human rights agencies reporting excesses such as forced labour camps, torture and even illegal industrial-scale organ harvesting.

These efforts show a significant upgradation of the Chinese offensive cyber capabilities and also demonstrates the tremendous amount of resources put in by Beijing to augment those capabilities including technical. For the past few years, China’s internal security budget has far surpassed its external defence budget. It has tripled since 2007 to reach $193 billion in 2017. More importantly, this increase has been highest in areas with major populations of religious and ethnic minorities. Much of it has gone into upgrading the technical capabilities for surveillance including lining up Xinjiang’s streets with high-end surveillance cameras run facial recognition software to identify and track people. In addition, Chinese security apparatus already deploys voice-recognition software, big-data analytics, artificial intelligence, and DNA collection programme.

This surveillance state aligns with the growing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping presidency in China, which has sought to exert greater control over freedom of speech and expression and curb the opposition. As part of this, in 2016 China enacted a stringent cyber security law which sought to highly censor the cyber space. However, the more Beijing attempts to quell the voices of its ethnic minorities, the more vocal the latter are becoming in flagging the Chinese excesses. Going forward, there will be greater scrutiny of the Chinese action in the Western capital, particularly after Beijing’s actions against the Hong Kong protestors sparked a sterner American response.