Shanghai Police Track Uyghurs And Foreign Journalists Visiting Xinjiang

Published May 02, 2023 14:20 PM
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Shanghai police are building a sweeping surveillance system which notifies authorities whenever foreign journalists book flights or train tickets to Xinjiang.

The system also flags police whenever a Uyghur arrives in Shanghai. All this is made possible by connecting directly to Shanghai's Alibaba police cloud.

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The PRC is accused of perpetrating "serious human rights violations" in Xinjiang by the UN. Foreign journalists traveling to Xinjiang report being followed, harassed, and even assaulted.

Alibaba did not respond to repeated requests for comment. (Alibaba previously offered Uyghur recognition as a service but claimed it was for 'testing'.)

In this post, IPVM examines this project and the risks it raises. National Review has covered this report.

'Big Data' Project Announced

In March 2023, authorities in Songjiang District, Shanghai, announced that a local integrator had won a "Big Data" (大数据) software project for police worth ~$315,000 USD. Songjiang is one of Shanghai's largest districts with over 1.5 million residents.

'Case Study' For Shanghai's 'Digital Transformation'

Songjiang police are building 26 "modules" (模块) that create alerts for different categories of people/incidents by sorting through Shanghai's massive police database.

While the project only applies to Songjiang District for now, it aims to serve as a "case study" (样板) for the "digital transformation" of Shanghai's entire police force:

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Improve the technology and intelligence of police work, promote the reengineering of the current police process, and provide a case study for learning and reference for the digital transformation of the city's public security

提高警务工作的科技化,智能化,推进现在警务流程再造,为全市公安数字化转型建设提供学习、借鉴的样板 [emphasis added]

This means if this system proves successful, the rest of the city could follow. Shanghai is the PRC's largest city with ~25 million residents.

Flags Foreign Journalists Traveling To Xinjiang

One of the 26 'modules', the "Special Personnel Screening Mode" (特因人员梳理模型), creates a system that automatically flags foreign journalists with travel records to Xinjiang, either by plane or by train:

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Xinjiang is ~2,500 miles from Shanghai so virtually all journalists wishing to go there book an airline ticket or at least a high-speed train.

Visiting Xinjiang "Particularly Difficult"

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China's 2021 report states that traveling to Xinjiang and reporting from there is "particularly difficult", notably:

  • 88% of the journalists who traveled to Xinjiang in 2021 said that they were visibly followed, often by men in plainclothes
  • 44% said their interviews were visibly monitored and disrupted
  • 34% were asked or forced to delete data, such as photos or video footage they had taken in Xinjiang

For example, a correspondent for The Telegraph was physically assaulted / hit in the face by plainclothes police tailing her during a reporting trip in 2021:

The UN says Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are subject to "serious human rights violations" by the PRC, including mass detention in camps. The PRC government claims "all unbiased foreigners are welcome to visit Xinjiang" and dismisses Xinjiang criticism as a "political tool" of the West.

"Spot Uyghurs Coming To Shanghai"

Another one of the 26 modules creates a system that can automatically "spot Uyghurs coming to Shanghai":

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While the exact purpose of this 'module' is unclear, Uyghurs are subject to "heightened monitoring and control" when they travel within China and are often interrogated by police as soon as their presence is known, Human Rights Watch told IPVM:

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Outside of Xinjiang, in the rest of China, Uyghurs have also been subjected to heightened monitoring and control. It’s been widely documented that, in the rest of China, when Uyghurs ride a train, go to a hotel, visit an internet café—systems that monitor these places immediately dispatch the police to interrogate these people. Uyghurs are typically not allowed to stay in hotels, for example. [emphasis added]

PRC police already have a system of video analytics-powered "Uyghur alarm" systems across the country, IPVM has reported.

Sex Workers, Illegal Immigrants, Drug Traffickers Tracked

Other categories tracked by the system's 26 'modules' include suspected sex workers, illegal immigrants, drug traffickers, and more, e.g.:

  • Model of Illegal Residence of Overseas Population (境外人口非法居留模型). This tracks foreigners with expired residence permits.
  • Early Warning Function for Prostitutes in the Jurisdiction (辖区卖淫人员预警功能). This warns police of suspected prostitution by analyzing hotel check-in records made by two people from the opposite sex.
  • Suspected Drug Traffickers Early Warning Function (疑似贩毒人员预警功能). This flags suspected drug traffickers based on WeChat data.

Lumping in Uyghurs and foreign journalists with the above categories raises concerns that the police are criminalizing journalism and Uyghur people.

Alibaba Police Cloud Integration Examined

In order for the 26 modules to work, the system connects directly with Shanghai's police cloud platform (警务云平台) which runs on a customized Alibaba cloud (专有云).

This integration enables Songjiang police to access 34 types of data in Shanghai's Alibaba police cloud (not just Songjiang district's), including:

  • Basic information about foreigners / 境外人员基本信息
  • Visa information about foreigners / 境外人员签证信息
  • Hotel check-ins / 宾旅馆入住记录
  • Entry and exit information (customs information) / 出入境信息
  • Railway booking information / 铁路订票信息
  • Information on Faculty and Staff of Key Universities / 重点高校教职人员信息
  • Civil Aviation Booking Information (flight tickets) / 民航订票信息

Alibaba Cloud has built similar cloud projects for police in Qingdao, Shandong and Neijiang, Sichuan.

"Alibaba Has Responsibility": Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch told IPVM that Alibaba should drop this partnership and ensure it does not support any other PRC "police mass surveillance projects":

Given that companies should not contribute to human rights abuses, Alibaba has responsibility, and we urge the company to stop providing such services to the police. It should also ensure that it does not support any other police mass surveillance projects in China. Alibaba needs to do their human rights due diligence with every contract or licensing agreement, particularly with powerful governments, to ensure that their products aren’t causing or contributing to human rights abuses. [emphasis added]

Alibaba No Response

Alibaba did not respond to IPVM's repeated requests for comment. IPVM first reached out to Alibaba on April 27th and followed up twice more since then. If Alibaba does respond, we will update.

Alibaba Uyghur Recognition As A Service

In 2020, IPVM reported that Alibaba openly offered Uyghur/'ethnic minority' recognition as a Cloud service, allowing customers to be alerted any time Alibaba detects a Uyghur:

At the time, Alibaba admitted its Cloud division developed the racist AI software, saying it is "dismayed" while claiming it "never intended" to target "specific ethnic groups" and the tech was only used "within a testing environment".

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