Sep 12, 2018 - World

Ground zero for China's techno-surveillance

A QR code design created using different varieties of rice in Shenyang, China. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

The lines between online and offline political suppression in China are becoming increasingly blurred, say experts, as Beijing accelerates the export of its surveillance methods.

What's going on: The latest example is the placement of QR codes outside the homes of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to collect information on the residents, according to Human Rights Watch.

  • Based on interviews with 58 Uighur Muslims formerly living in the far west region of Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch reports that the Chinese government is placing QR codes on houses to vacuum up information on residents into a scannable bite.
  • The QR program is part of a larger picture in which Beijing is using Xinjiang as a petri dish for its newest surveillance technologies, says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
  • Beijing has detained about a million Uighurs in political indoctrination camps and enacted a regime of DNA and voice data collection.

The tech behind QR codes is simple, but in the context of surveillance, they allow authorities to access massive amounts of personal data in seconds.

  • Richardson says that police in Xinjiang have collected data on matters like how many times a day a person prays, whether they have relatives outside of the country and where their political loyalties lie.
  • The data goes beyond what's publicly available, she says.

What to watch: China is already exporting "smart city" surveillance and policing technology to the states with governments like its own. As we have reported, recipients include Iran, Russia and several others.

  • China is showing these countries that they can "have thriving digital economies and, at the same time, use that technology to promote advances in surveillance," says Samm Sacks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The bottom line: The internet has long been a powerful tool for social change, propelling political protests and movements around the world, perhaps most notably the Arab Spring revolts. But China "turns that model on its head," says Sacks. Beijing has become adept at using the internet as a force of control.

Go deeper: The U.S. tech companies that power China's state surveillance

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