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Researcher: Technology Closely Follows Millions in Western China


In this Aug. 31, 2018, file photo, a child and a woman wait outside a school entrance mounted with surveillance cameras and barricades with multiple layers of barbed wire in Peyzawat, western China's Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
Researcher: Technology Closely Follows Millions in Western China
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A Dutch researcher says technology is being used to closely follow the movements of more than 2.5 million people in western China.

Internet security researcher Victor Gevers recently released information about an operation in China’s far western Xinjiang area. Xinjiang is home to an ethnic minority population that is mostly Muslim.

He said he discovered a database of information collected by a Chinese company on people in the area. Gevers is the co-founder of GDI Foundation, a Netherlands-based not-for-profit that finds and informs organizations of online security issues.

The information included personal details like names, birthdates, places of employment and passport pictures. It also recorded real-time details such as the current position of individuals and places they had recently visited, Gevers said.

In this Nov. 5, 2017, file photo, residents pass by a security checkpoint and surveillance cameras mounted on a street in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
In this Nov. 5, 2017, file photo, residents pass by a security checkpoint and surveillance cameras mounted on a street in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

The database operation appears to have recorded people’s movements with facial recognition technology. The researcher said the information on people’s movements included about 6.7 million individual records during a 24-hour period. During January, the system followed more than 386 million “objects.” Numerous cameras were used to identify where people went.

Gevers said the company, called SenseNets, produces different artificial intelligence-based security systems. In addition to the collected information he found, he also discovered the company had left the database unprotected for months.

“This system was open to the entire world, and anyone had full access to the data,” Gevers told the Associated Press.

On Twitter, Gevers gave a breakdown on the ethnicity groups represented in the database. It showed that 55 percent of the individuals were identified as Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority. Twenty-eight percent were Uyghur, while 8 percent were Kazakh - both of which are Muslim ethnic minority groups.

In this May 1, 2014, file photo, an Uighur woman rests near a cage protecting heavily armed Chinese paramilitary policemen on duty in Urumqi in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
In this May 1, 2014, file photo, an Uighur woman rests near a cage protecting heavily armed Chinese paramilitary policemen on duty in Urumqi in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

Xinjiang is a huge, resource-rich area in China’s far west. It shares a border with eight countries, including Pakistan, Russia and Afghanistan. In recent years, China has put in place severe security measures in Xinjiang. Police checkpoints are widespread and spy cameras watch over large areas.

Officials have set up detention centers that China has described as “re-education camps.” Experts say more than 1 million people from Muslim minority groups are detained in camps across Xinjiang.

China’s government says the camps are aimed at preventing Islamic extremism and separatism. Rights groups, the United States and other countries have condemned the camps as forms of “arbitrary” detentions.

Government security and surveillance methods are used in other parts of China as well. But the measures seem far heavier in Xinjiang than in most other areas. Experts and human rights activists have noted Xinjiang may be a testing ground for methods that could be used in other parts of the country in the future.

In this Aug. 31, 2018, file photo, children play outside the entrance to a school ringed with barbed wire, barricades and surveillance cameras near a sign which reads: "Please use the nation's common language" indicating the use of Mandarin in Peyzawat, w
In this Aug. 31, 2018, file photo, children play outside the entrance to a school ringed with barbed wire, barricades and surveillance cameras near a sign which reads: "Please use the nation's common language" indicating the use of Mandarin in Peyzawat, w

The company that kept the database, SenseNets, was founded in the China’s southern city of Shenzhen in 2015, the Associated Press reported. It is majority-owned by Beijing-based NetPosa, a technology company specializing in video surveillance. The SenseNets website says the company has partnerships with police forces in Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces, as well as in Shanghai.

Officials from SenseNets did not respond to AP requests for comment on operation of the database.

Victor Gevers told the AP that after he released details of his discovery, he learned the system might be used as a surveillance tool against Xinjiang’s Muslim minority groups. This, he said, made him “very angry.”

“I could have destroyed that database with one command,” Gevers said. “But I choose not to play judge and executioner because it is not my place to do so.”

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported on this story. Bryan Lynn adapted it for VOA Learning English, with additional information from online sources. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

database n. information stored in a computer in an organized structure so that it can be searched in different ways

artificial intelligence n. ability of a machine to use and analyze data in an attempt to reproduce human behavior

access n. the ability to use or see something

arbitrary adj. not based on a system or rules and often seen as unfair

surveillance n. the activity of watching someone carefully, especially by the police or army

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