When a Dutch cybersecurity researcher disclosed last month that Chinese security contractor SenseNets left a massive facial recognition database tracking the movements of over 2.5 million people in China’s Xinjiang province unsecured on the internet, it briefly shone a spotlight on the alarming scope of the Chinese surveillance state.
But SenseNets is a symptom of a much larger phenomenon: Tech firms in the United States are lending expertise, reputational credence, and even technology to Chinese surveillance companies, wittingly or otherwise.
The SenseNets database logged exact GPS coordinates on a 24-hour basis and, using facial recognition, associated that data with sensitive personal information, including national ID numbers, home addresses, personal photographs, and places of employment. Nearly one-third of the individuals tracked were from the Uighur minority ethnic group. In a bizarre juxtaposition of surveillance supremacy and security incompetence, SenseNets’ database was left open on the internet for six months before it was reported and, according to the researcher who discovered it, could have been “corrupted by a 12-year-old.”
The discovery suggests SenseNets is one of a number of Chinese companies participating in the construction of a technology-enabled totalitarian police state in Xinjiang, which has seen as many as 2 million Uighurs placed into “re-education camps” since early 2017. Eyewitness reports from inside the camps describe harsh living conditions, torture, and near constant political indoctrination meant to strip Uighurs of any attachment to their Islamic faith. Facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and speech monitoring enable and supercharge the Chinese Communist Party’s drive to “standardize” its Uighur population. Uighurs can be sent to re-education camps for a vast array of trivial offenses, many of which are benign expressions of faith. The party monitors compliance through unrelenting electronic surveillance of online and physical activities. This modern-day panopticon requires enormous amounts of labor, but is serving as a testing ground for new technologies of surveillance that might render this process cheaper and more efficient for the state.