Jun 14, 2022 - World

Report: Hikvision cameras help Xinjiang police ensnare Uyghurs

Illustration of a pattern of eyes looking around.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Cameras made by Chinese surveillance company Hikvision are deeply integrated into an intelligence program aimed at tracking and detaining Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, according to a new report.

Why it matters: The findings add further weight to allegations the surveillance technology giant is complicit in the Chinese government's human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

  • The report, published today by surveillance technology trade publication IPVM, draws on an analysis of the Xinjiang Police Files, a trove of data and documents from Xinjiang police bureaus recently made public.
  • The report shows that Hikvision technology, in some cases identified down to serial numbers of certain cameras, has captured footage that has led to the detention of specific Uyghur individuals.
  • Hikvision has previously denied reports that its cameras are used in Xinjiang's crackdown on Uyghurs, calling such claims "unsubstantiated."
  • Hikvision did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

The big picture: While police in many countries increasingly use surveillance technology, the Chinese government has built the world's most sophisticated surveillance state in Xinjiang, where facial recognition cameras blanket the streets and are often installed outside the doors of Uyghur homes.

  • Xinjiang police state in internal documents dating to 2018 that mass data collection and surveillance extends to all of the region's 23 million residents, the IPVM report states.
  • Authorities have collected biometric data from residents including DNA samples and retina scans, forced many people to install surveillance apps on their phones, and screened all internet and phone messages.

Details: Documents from the Shufu County police bureau in southern Xinjiang lay out several cases from 2018 involving Hikvision's technology, according to the IPVM report.

  • In one case, police tracked a Uyghur man's car after a Hikvision camera captured footage of the car's license plate. The license plate number was automatically compared to a database and matched to the Uyghur driver's ID number. An alert was automatically sent to the nearest police station flagging the man for "immediate arrest."
  • The man was flagged for arrest because of links abroad. A campaign carried out by Xinjiang authorities that began around 2017 ordered all Uyghurs with a history of traveling abroad to be questioned. Those "for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out," as one leaked internal directive stated, were ordered to be placed into a detention camp.

How it works: The system used to process the license plate numbers captured by Hikvision cameras is known as the Integrated Joint Operation Platform (IJOP). It is an intelligence program used by Xinjiang police bureaus and other security officials to process the huge amounts of data generated by surveillance technology in the region. Previous leaks have revealed the existence of IJOP and how it works.

  • More than a million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been put in mass internment camps, many of them after being flagged for detention through IJOP.
  • Information from police checkpoints, cellphone surveillance, video footage, in-person interrogations, gas stations, and many other sources is fed into IJOP and matched to the IDs of Xinjiang residents — usually targeting Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups.
  • Behavior deemed "suspicious," which can include such innocuous activities as buying more gas than usual or exiting a home through the back door too frequently, can result in a Xinjiang resident's name being flagged by IJOP.
  • That can trigger an alarm that is sent directly to a local police station, or even directly to a local officer's cellphone. Police then locate the individual and interrogate them, and may take them to a detention facility.

What they're saying: Details contained in the Xinjiang Police Files "shed additional light and provide confirmation on the density and intensity of the surveillance," Adrian Zenz, a researcher with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who led the release of the Xinjiang Police Files, told Axios.

  • The world already knew Xinjiang was the world's most sophisticated police state, Zenz said. The new information "indicates the unprecedented level at which some of these measures are implemented."

What to watch: The U.S. government is reportedly considering sanctioning Hikvision for its involvement in human rights abuses in China.

  • Such a move would dramatically impact the company, which does business in more than 180 countries and has more than 52,000 employees.
  • The U.S. has already placed Hikvision on an export blacklist, which forbids U.S. companies from doing business with it unless they obtain a special license.
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