Citing a leaked list of more than 2,000 detainees, HRW says authorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region use expansive data collection project to flag and detain Uighurs in the region.

Workers walk by the fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in China on September 4, 2018.
Workers walk by the fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in China on September 4, 2018. (Reuters)

A leaked list of more than 2,000 ethnic Uighur detainees in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region suggests the government has used an expansive data collection project to arbitrarily detain Uighurs in the region, according to US rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW said the leaked police data from the Aksu prefecture was further evidence of "how China's brutal repression of Xinjiang's Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology."

Surveillance spending in the region has ballooned in recent years, with facial recognition, iris scanners, DNA collection, and artificial intelligence deployed across the province in the name of preventing terrorism.

HRW said it had obtained the list – which detailed detentions from mid-2016 to late 2018 – from an anonymous source that had previously provided audiovisual content taken from inside a facility in Aksu.

The group gave an example of a "Mrs T" – detained for "links with sensitive countries" who was listed as having received a number of calls from a foreign number which belonged to her sister.

Researchers at the NGO spoke to the woman and learned that police had interrogated her sister in the region, but she has had no direct contact with her family in the province since.

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How system flags people

Beijing has come under intense international criticism over its policies in the resource-rich territory, where rights groups say as many as one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps.

China defends the camps as vocational training centres aimed at stamping out terrorism and improving employment opportunities.

HRW said the people were flagged using a programme called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which collected data from surveillance systems in the region before officials decided whether to send them to camps.

HRW said its information suggests the "vast majority" of people were flagged to authorities for legal behaviour, including phone calls to relatives abroad or having no fixed address.

Other reasons for detention listed include activities like repeatedly switching off a smartphone, having "unstable thoughts" or "being generally untrustworthy"

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'IJOP in action'

Only around 10 percent of the people on the list were detained for the reasons of terrorism or extremism.

The list from 2018 includes the names of Xinjiang Uighurs, phone numbers and reasons for detention in China's camp system, including studying the Quran, wearing religious clothing or travelling internationally.

"The Aksu list is the first time we have seen the IJOP in action in detaining people," said HRW's Maya Wang.

The list, parts of which were shown to AFP news agency, described the reason for detention of many of the people as simply being "flagged" by the integrated platform.

The rights group has not published the full contents of the list, citing safety concerns for the person who had leaked it

The local Aksu government, as well as Uighur region's authorities, did not immediately respond to AFP's requests for comment.

Huawei's role flagged 

Separately, US-based surveillance research firm IPVM said in a report on Tuesday that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei had been involved in testing facial recognition software that could send alerts to police when it recognised Uighur minorities' faces.

An internal Huawei report cited by IPVM – which has been removed from the company's website but is still visible in Google searches – showed the software as passing tests for "Uighur alerts" and "recognition based on age, sex, ethnicity, angle of facial images."

Huawei did not immediately reply to AFP's request for comment.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies