China is reportedly expanding its efforts to surveil its citizens and create online records for many of them, often for authoritarian purposes.
Chinese officials have been using “phone trackers” to observe certain populations and identify them, according to an investigation from the New York Times. The New York Times reviewed over 100,000 documents provided by the digital magazine ChinaFile regarding government bidding contracts in the region and discovered several details about the investments and efforts that Chinese officials have made in surveilling the mass population.
For example, Chinese authorities have used people’s mobile activities to identify them. Local police in Guangdong used phone trackers with the hope of detecting a Uyghur-to-Chinese dictionary app on phones, according to the New York Times. This sort of information could, most likely, be used to identify if a user was a Uyghur, a religious minority population under heavy surveillance from the Chinese government.
This technology primarily relies on “Wi-Fi sniffers,” a network analyzer that wiretaps users’ Wi-Fi-based online activities. Officials also used IMSI catchers, devices that intercept mobile phone traffic and can capture the location data of users. These technologies were initially ordered in 2017 for select regions but have since expanded to all 31 of mainland China’s provinces.
China has also begun gathering additional user data, including facial recognition, DNA, iris scans, and voice prints. China has the most surveillance cameras worldwide, including a significant presence in public areas. Local authorities often pushed for cameras to be placed in private businesses or residential areas. For example, police in Fuzhou installed a police surveillance camera within the lobby of a local Days Inn. These cameras reportedly feed data to powerful analytics software that can identify a person’s race, gender, or even whether they’re wearing glasses or masks.
Chinese authorities have also been gathering other pieces of evidence via these surveillance devices, including voice prints recorded via the camera. It has also invested heavily in iris scan and DNA databases. China built its first iris scan database in 2017 in Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live. Police have also begun collecting DNA samples from men and have attempted to do so in a broad attempt to gather that information into a singular government database.
These efforts appear to be part of a more significant attempt by Chinese officials to build a comprehensive profile of citizens that is available to government authorities upon request.