"They Could Watch Everything We Did": Video Surveillance Against Uyghurs Inside And Outside The Camps

By Charles Rollet, Published Feb 21, 2022, 08:41am EST

Surveillance against Uyghurs by PRC manufacturers has been a major emphasis of IPVM's reporting since 2018 when IPVM exposed how Dahua and Hikvision won over $1 billion worth of police surveillance projects in Xinjiang.

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IPVM has focused on exposing patents, contracts, spec sheets, and other materials targeting Uyghurs. However, we have not explored the broader context of how surveillance technology impacts Uyghurs' everyday lives, inside and outside the camps.

To provide this perspective, IPVM interviewed Xinjiang expert Darren Byler, a professor at Canada's Simon Fraser University who recently published In The Camps: China's High Tech Penal Colony, an expose of Uyghur surveillance based on his own on-the-ground experience and the testimonies of Uyghurs themselves.

"Broadest Definition Of Terrorism Anywhere In the World"

Starting in 2017, the PRC began a wide-ranging crackdown in Xinjiang against what it considers the Three Evils (三个势力): terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, chiefly targeting Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim people who are about 50% of Xinjiang's population.

But the crackdown targets almost all Uyghurs rather than a few extremists, Byler explained, with PRC authorities building an extensive surveillance state and locking up millions of Uyghurs in camps or prisons for "trivial" offenses:

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the counter-terrorism laws since 2016 are very broad, and the PRC has told the UN that people sent to the camps are 'guilty of terrorism crimes' that aren’t serious or basically trivial, so they could be 'rehabilitated' [...] There's been a massive focus on using digital forensics to diagnose untrustworthiness and how to categorize people using the broadest definition of terrorism anywhere in the world [emphasis added]

Such 'crimes' include having a beard, contact with Uyghurs outside China, or using an Islamic prayer app, which were all legal in previous years, Byler said:

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The state has basically said these people are guilty of thought crimes like installing WhatsApp or using a VPN to contact people outside of China, things that were taken for granted before and are done across China without being considered crimes. Many crimes people were convicted of were criminalized after the fact, like studying the Quran on WeChat which was permitted prior to 2016. [emphasis added]

In December 2021 a tribunal of international legal experts concluded that intense surveillance in Xinjiang constitutes "crimes against humanity".

"200 Mosque Visits Means Go To Camp"

In 2018, IPVM reported about a Hikvision police project including facial recognition cameras for almost 1,000 mosques in just one Xinjiang county. This is part of a larger crackdown on religious practice, Byler told IPVM, noting that "Every mosque visit is recorded" and "200 visits means go to camp":

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It’s not only automated face recognition at many of the mosques, they also have turnstile checkpoints at each mosque entrance and you have your face scanned to match your ID - all that means that every mosque visit is recorded, and I've seen very clear evidence that visits to the mosque means being "sent to study" which is what they mean to be sent to a camp. One police study said 200 visits means go to camp [emphasis added]

The study cited by Byler was conducted by Xiheba district of Urumqi police in 2018 and was translated and uploaded, touting that the threat of "re-education" makes Uyghurs "afraid to go to the mosque for prayers":

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The study concludes that religious attendance fell more than 96% at one mosque after the introduction of the "Strike Down And Detain" program:

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Most Common Reason For Detention: "Praying And Mosque Visitation"

In The Camps cites a different study, conducted by Uyghur activist group Xinjiang Victims Database, which found that across 114 people detained in one county, the "most frequently known reason for detention was 'praying' and 'mosque visitation'":

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Over the years that followed, the Xinjiang Victims Database, an international organization, has documented 114 cases of people detained in Shawan. In the majority of cases, the relatives of Shawan detainees said they had no knowledge of why their relatives were detained. In some cases, detainees or their family members said they were detained for violations that did not rise to the level of criminality and were related to online activity or travel to Kazakhstan to visit their relatives. The most frequently known reason for detention, however, was "praying" and "mosque visitation"—the site where the majority of facial recognition cameras were slated to be installed in Shawan’s Safe City project. [emphasis added]

While neither Dahua nor Hikvision won the Shawan Safe City project, both firms have won numerous other similar 'Safe City' Xinjiang police projects, some of which also mention mosque surveillance:

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Byler said the majority of Uyghurs under 65 "are not really going to the mosque at all" any more. Many smaller mosques have been outright destroyed, with the only remaining option centralized, state-run mosques.

How Video Surveillance Is Used In Camps

The PRC's 'anti-terror' campaign resulted in millions of Uyghurs being sent to 're-education' camps which intensively deploy surveillance, including Hikvision cameras. Recent footage of the camps by a Chinese vlogger revealed numerous Hikvision cameras and in 2019 the BBC filmed a Hikvision camera at a camp:

Byler confirmed that video surveillance is heavily used throughout Xinjiang's camps, and is supposed to help guards manage the overwhelming numbers of detainees:

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One of the detainees visited the camera monitoring center inside a camp and said it was remarkable the quality of the imagery - you could see every face and every cell number. It appeared to her that face rec systems were used and activity that wasn’t permitted would result in response from the guards. What she said, and what detainees have told me, is the surveillance allowed 1-3 guards to manage an entire floor of the camps, so thousands of people. [emphasis added]

The camps are likely using video analytics like face recognition, line crossing, and other tools to keep detainees in line, Byler said. In The Camps includes an interview with a Uyghur woman, Qelbinur, who taught at one of the re-education camps and was given a tour of its video surveillance command center. Qelbinur said the guards were able to track detainees' faces "even in low light" and used motion detection to police behaviors:

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When she was in the camp, Qelbinur was always conscious of the cameras. She said, "In the classroom there were four cameras in the front, two in the middle, and four in the back. Even though the light was not that bright, it seemed they could watch everything we did." One day the tall Uyghur camp administrator named Kadir gave her a tour of the "command center." It consisted of banks of TV monitors, a console with many buttons, a joystick, and a microphone. Four guards worked in shifts around the clock to watch the screens. If the detainees got up from the floor or spoke, “They yelled at the detainees. They yelled whenever they made a move: Don’t talk! Don’t speak Uyghur!" Even in low light, faces could be seen in high definition. This stood out to her as something that was quite astonishing. Even in cells crowded with so many people they had to sleep in shifts, every face appeared on the screen like in a WeChat video call, except they were clearer. If anyone moved, their motion was automatically detected. "When they made any gesture, the camera captured that. For example, if anyone talks to others, even in the middle of the night, the guards would yell at them over the intercom," she remembered. What was even more startling was the way "the police could click on that person’s face to make it bigger on the screen." They could pull up the detainee’s name and number in an instant. [emphasis added]

The book said the camp's security system closely matched a "smart camp" system offered by Dahua, although there is no independent confirmation that this particular camp was outfitted by Dahua. (Overall, Dahua has won close to $1 billion in Xinjiang police contracts.) The use of advanced surveillance in camps strengthens the authorities' goal that camps should "teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison", Byler wrote.

How Xinjiang's Police Checkpoints Work

Since the crackdown began, Xinjiang has been blanketed by thousands of police checkpoints where police often let ethnic Han Chinese pass unimpeded but rigorously stop, search, and detain Uyghurs, according to a CNN visit of Xinjiang in 2019.

These checkpoints are big business, with several of Dahua and Hikvision's Xinjiang police projects mentioning checkpoint security e.g. the ~$40 million 2017 Dahua project Hotan County Public Security Checkpoint PPP Project. Byler said that during his last Xinjiang visit in April 2018, the checkpoints made going to ordinary places like mosques, schools, banks, and malls "like [crossing] an international border every time":

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When you go into a mosque or leave one county to another, it’s like a big checkpoint system that’s pretty much like an international border every time. basically every institutional place like shopping mall, bank, school, there’s a metal detector and you have to write down your ID number or a face scan system [emphasis added]

The checkpoints are one way PRC authorities detain Uyghurs and send them to camps, by checking people's cellphone data and conducting facial recognition-powered ID checks:

At the checkpoint people do get [detained and sent to camp], it's likely you’ve been flagged already and they just catch you at the checkpoint but they’re also downloading phone [data] there or if you're on a watchlist, like a family member of the camp detainee who had been traveling outside Xinjiang, that's how you end up on that list. They know who has what phone registered to them, if you're not carrying a phone registered to your ID card for example [emphasis added]

Hikvision Parent "Biggest Contributor" To Checkpoints

Byler said the checkpoints' equipment is mostly made by CETC, the PRC government defense conglomerate which owns Hikvision's controlling shareholder:

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CETC, which is the parent company of Hikvision, they are probably the biggest contributor to physical surveillance, I saw their equipment in so many checkpoints and they are directly involved in servicing the IJOP. The CETC equipment is mostly the scanning equipment, the turnstile with an ID scan and camera system, I can’t say for sure if it’s all CETC but that’s the biggest logo on the scanners. All major jurisdictional boundaries had CETC scanners which seemed the most common in use. [emphasis added]

One example of a CETC checkpoint at a Xinjiang mosque was published by ChinaFile:

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Hikvision gear has also been filmed at Xinjiang police checkpoints, e.g. from this Chinese travel blogger:

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Megvii Face Rec Machine 'Only For Uyghurs'

Police facial recognition in Xinjiang isn't limited to checkpoints. In his book, Byler describes noticing a Megvii face-scan machine at his Xinjiang hotel which checked peoples' faces against a police 'blacklist' database. The clerk made it clear it was only meant for Uyghurs:

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The face-scan machine at the hotel check-in desk in Ürümchi was a white machine about a foot wide and a foot and a half tall with rounded corners in the style of Apple products. Above the HD screen were two LED lights that shone on the person staring into the screen. Below the screen was a flat scanner where the person was to place their ID. In the lower left corner, a rainbow-colored Megvii logo announced the branding of the algorithm that linked the face peering into the screen to the Xinjiang policing system. The software behind that logo—programmed code built from Seattle to Ürümchi—is what gave the machine the ability to verify the identity of the face to the image on an ID and compare it to thousands upon thousands of blacklisted faces in less than a second. Speaking in Uyghur, I asked the clerk behind the desk if I should use the machine to verify my ID. A bit incredulous, he responded, "Are you Uyghur?" I laughed and waved my passport at him and said, “No, I’m a foreigner, but I’ve lived here for a long time." He smiled, and said, "This machine isn’t for you. It is just for local people. I’ll have to scan your documents manually." Since I had last visited the Uyghur region in June 2015, a lot had changed [emphasis added]

IPVM has covered how Megvii developed Uyghur alarms for Huawei and also mentioned the racist technology in a PRC patent filing.

PRC Surveillance Companies "Much More Complicit Than They Want To Admit"

PRC surveillance companies "benefit a lot" from the surveillance state in Xinjiang and "are much more complicit than they want to admit", Byler told IPVM:

There’s a lot of economic incentives, they benefit a lot from it, these systems really do need to be maintained - they're not plug-and-play, they constantly being fine tuned, they have to do worker training, there’s a lot of service providing that goes into maintaining these systems.

Indeed, no PRC company has offered detailed explanations - much less apologies - for this complicity. Hikvision said it did not "knowingly" commit human rights abuses in Xinjiang, while a Dahua VP even boasted that its Xinjiang human rights sanctions showcased Dahua's "strong technological capability".

1 report cite this report:

'Hikvision Cameras In My Concentration Camp Cell,' Says Victim on Apr 25, 2022
3 Hikvision cameras monitored a Xinjiang concentration camp survivor's every...

Comments (3)

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It’s incredible how many in this industry don’t care about the situation the Uyghur’s are in… nor do they realize how ignoring this kind of oppression could normalize it for the rest of the world.

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Thank you for your ongoing attention to and coverage of these issues. I couldn't agree with #1 more...this is not going to be an isolated story, but rather the first domino.

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Greatly appreciate your coverage of this.

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