Chinese police are developing a computer-based policing program that can study large amounts of citizens' personal information. The program examines the information to discover patterns in human behavior.
Human Rights Watch says the police plan to use this information to closely watch rights activists, political opponents and ethnic minority groups.
The rights group called on the Chinese Communist Party to stop this "abusive" system, called the Police Cloud.
Sophie Richardson is following developments in China for the group. In a statement, she said, "It is frightening that Chinese authorities are collecting and centralizing ever more information" about hundreds of millions of citizens.
Richardson said the system will target people who deviate from what officials see as "normal thought." She added that the issue is not just one of people’s privacy, but many of the rights they have.
Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that China is looking at new technologies to study large amounts and different kinds of data. This includes written information, such as text messages, video and pictures.
The report said the Police Cloud tracks things like a person’s medical history, supermarket purchases and products shipped to homes. It links this information to each person's national identification card number.
"This allows the Police Cloud system to track where the individuals have been, who they are with, and what they have been doing, as well as make predictions about their future activities," the report said.
It said a major concern is that these systems are created, in part, to watch groups officials consider threatening, which "raises serious concerns about social and racial profiling."
No legal protection
The Police Cloud has the ability to watch people involved in crime, such as terrorism or drugs, and people with mental health issues who cause "disturbances," the group said.
The report says local police can decide anyone is a threat and must be watched, especially if they are listed as a threat to "stability." By law, the government can do this without informing people that they are listed in this way.
Human Rights Watch found that the Police Cloud targets people who use the petitioning system to criticize the government. Ethnic minority Uyghurs from Xinjiang are also targeted, the group said.
The report said Police Cloud systems are now in full operation in some areas, including Tianjin Municipality and Jiangsu province.
The data can include the name of the street and city where a person lives, family relations, birth control methods and religious ties. Also being added are travel records, closed circuit television videos and information from government agencies and even private companies.
The system helps the Chinese police to study individuals “who travel, who live, (and) who work together,” the report said.
Nationwide in five years
Political activist Wu Shimin is based in Jiangsu. He said the system seems to be already in use in some parts of China, and will likely be fully operating in about five years.
Wu said that to prevent the Police Cloud from watching you, you would need to change your telephone number. And, you would probably need to use someone else's identification card to buy a train ticket and live somewhere other than your home.
But, he said, you would also have to be sure that whoever you stay with – friends or family – has no history of petitioning the government.
Zhang Enguang is a rights activist in Shandong, China. He said he is probably a target of the Police Cloud. But, he said, rights groups and some citizens will likely oppose the new system.
But even if you do protest, he warned, the police will still collect information in the same way. “Then, they will use it in any way they can to frame you, and then they can detain you,” he said.
Currently, China’s privacy laws don't meet the goals of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. China signed the covenant, but has yet to have it approved by lawmakers.
The agreement states that collecting and using people's personal information for policing purposes must be based on a real threat to national security or public order. And, it should use the least invasive measures to deal with the threat.
I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Anna Matteo.
Hai Nan and Lin Ping reported this story for Radio Free Asia. Alice Bryant adapted their report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
pattern – n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done
deviate – v. to do something that is different from what is expected
data – n. information used usually to plan or predict something
track – v. to watch or follow the progress of something
profile – v. to use race, ethnicity or some other quality as grounds for suspecting someone of committing an offense
disturbance – n. the disruption of a settled or peaceful condition
petition – v. to ask a person, group, or organization for something in a formal way
stability – n. the strength to survive; the quality of something that is not easily moved