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The New Arab Staff

China using facial recognition, big data to track and detain Uighur Muslims

As many as one million Uighur Muslims are being held in 're-education camps' [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 December, 2020

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Human Rights Watch says the Aksu List evidences China's use of data and technology for 'coerced thought transformation'.
China is using facial recognition technology and a big-data program to select Uighur Muslims for detention, new reports have revealed.

The data is used to flag behaviours, including wearing the Islamic veil, studying the Quran, or travelling to Mecca for pilgrimage, according to a Human Rights Watch report on Wednesday.

The rights watchdog said it obtained a list of more than 2,000 detainees in Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture which showed how Beijing "arbitrarily selects" candidates for arrest.

The programme, dubbed the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), also analysed relationships, communications and could flag individuals based on family relations.

"The Aksu List provides further insights into how China's brutal repression of Xinjiang's Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology," said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at HRW.

"The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: Why were they detained, and where are they now?"

The list includes details of one individual, named as 'Ms T', who was arrested due to "links to sensitive countries", HRW said. According to the list, Ms T had received four calls from her sister who had used a foreign number in 2017.

In another case, a man was flagged and arrested for having taken Quran lessons in the 1980s and for having "let his wife wear a veil", HRW said. 

HRW says the Aksu List evidences China's use of data and technology for "coerced thought transformation".

The chilling report comes as Chinese tech giant Huawei allegedly used AI-powered facial recognition technology to send alerts whenever a member of the Muslim Uighur minority was detected.

According to a document seen by video surveillance information organisation IPVM, Huawei worked with facial recognition startup Megvii to develop the AI camera system in 2018. The document was reportedly signed by Huawei representatives.

The system developed by Megvii and Huawei was able to approximate an individuals age, ethnicity and sex, and triggered a "Uighur alarm" when a member of the persecuted minority was detected.

Beijing is under intense international criticism over its policies in Xinjiang province, where rights groups say as many as one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps.

China has long denied persecuting its Uighur Muslim minority, claiming that its 're-education' camps provide training programmes, work schemes and better education to help stamp out extremism.

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