Reported by Alex Chen
The Shanghai police are constructing a comprehensive surveillance network that alerts the authorities whenever foreign journalists book transportation to Uyghuristan, IPVM reports. Through a direct connection to the Alibabaäs police cloud in Shanghai, the system can also signal the authorities whenever an Uyghur arrives in Shanghai.
According to the United Nations, the People’s Republic of China is accused of committing “grave human rights abuses” in Uyghuristan. Foreign journalists who journey to the region have reported incidents of being tailed, intimidated, and even physically attacked. Despite multiple requests for comment, Alibaba did not respond. Previously, Alibaba had provided an Uyghur recognition service but stated that it was only for “testing” purposes. This report, which examines the project and the potential risks it poses, has been covered by IPVM and National Review.
The officials in Shanghai’s Songjiang District declared in March 2023 that a regional integrator had secured a “Big Data” software contract for the police, valued at around $315,000. With a population of over 1.5 million, Songjiang is one of Shanghai’s most populous districts.
As part of Shanghai’s “Digital Transformation,” the Songjiang police are constructing 26 distinct “modules” that classify individuals and incidents into various categories by sifting through the extensive police database, thereby generating alerts. Although the project is presently limited to Songjiang District, it intends to act as a “model” for the “digital transformation” of Shanghai’s entire police department.
“Improve the technology and intelligence of police work, promote the reengineering of the current police process, and provide a case study for learning and reference for the digital transformation of the city’s public security提高警务工作的科技化，智能化，推进现在警务流程再造，为全市公安数字化转型建设提供学习、借鉴的样板 ”
Consequently, if the system demonstrates effectiveness, the remainder of the city could adopt it. Shanghai, with a population of approximately 25 million individuals, is the largest city in the PRC.
One of the 26 “modules” is the “Special Personnel Screening Mode” which sets up an automated system that alerts authorities about foreign journalists with travel records to Uyghuristan, either by air or train. Given that Uyghuristan is roughly 2,500 miles away from Shanghai, nearly all journalists who intend to visit the region would need to book an airline ticket or, at the very least, a high-speed train ticket.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s 2021 report declares that visiting Uyghuristan and reporting from there is “uniquely challenging.” Specifically:
“88% of the journalists who journeyed to Xinjiang in 2021 reported being shadowed, often by individuals dressed in plain clothes”
“44% stated that their interviews were watched and impeded”
“34% were requested or coerced to erase data, including photos or video footage taken in Xinjiang”
In 2021, for instance, a journalist for The Telegraph was physically attacked and hit in the face by plainclothes policemen who were following her during a reporting excursion.
According to the United Nations, the PRC subjects Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Uyghuristan to “grave human rights violations,” including being detained en masse in camps. The Chinese government asserts that “any unbiased foreigner is welcome to visit Xinjiang” and dismisses criticism of Uyghuristan as a “political weapon” wielded by the West.
One of the other 26 modules establishes a mechanism that can automatically “detect Uyghurs traveling to Shanghai.”
Although the exact intent of this ‘module’ is uncertain, according to Human Rights Watch, Uyghurs face “increased scrutiny and regulation” when they travel within China and are frequently interrogated by the police as soon as their arrival is confirmed. They informed IPVM about this.
“Outside of Xinjiang, in the rest of China, Uyghurs have also been subjected to heightened monitoring and control. It’s been widely documented that, in the rest of China, when Uyghurs ride a train, go to a hotel, or visit an internet café—systems that monitor these places immediately dispatch the police to interrogate these people. Uyghurs are typically not allowed to stay in hotels, for example.”-Human Right Watch
IPVM has reported that the Chinese police already have a network of “Uyghur alarms” across China that employ video analytics technology.
The system’s 26 ‘modules’ also track other categories such as suspected sex workers, illegal immigrants, drug traffickers, and so on. These include the Model of Illegal Residence of Overseas Population, which tracks foreigners with expired residence permits, the Early Warning Function for Prostitutes in the Jurisdiction, which warns police of suspected prostitution by analyzing hotel check-in records made by two people of opposite sexes and the Suspected Drug Traffickers Early Warning Function, which flags suspected drug traffickers based on WeChat data. However, categorizing Uyghurs and foreign journalists with these groups raises concerns that the police treat journalists and Uyghurs as criminal activities.
The integration between the 26 modules and Shanghai’s police cloud platform, which is operated on a customized Alibaba cloud, is essential for the system to function. This integration allows Songjiang police to access not only their own district’s data but also 34 types of data from the entire Alibaba police cloud in Shanghai. The data includes information such as the basic and visa information of foreigners, hotel check-ins, customs information for entry and exit, railway booking information, information on faculty and staff of key universities, civil aviation booking information, and more. It is worth noting that Alibaba Cloud has implemented similar cloud projects for police in other cities, including Qingdao in Shandong and Neijiang in Sichuan.
According to Human Rights Watch, Alibaba bears responsibility and should terminate its partnership with the Shanghai police force, and avoid supporting other mass surveillance projects carried out by the Chinese authorities.
“Given that companies should not contribute to human rights abuses, Alibaba has responsibility, and we urge the company to stop providing such services to the police. It should also ensure that it does not support any other police mass surveillance projects in China. Alibaba needs to do their human rights due diligence with every contract or licensing agreement, particularly with powerful governments, to ensure that their products aren’t causing or contributing to human rights abuses”
Despite repeated requests for comment, Alibaba has not responded to IPVM’s inquiries since April 27th. If there is a response from Alibaba, IPVM will update the report accordingly.IPVM previously reported in 2020 that Alibaba offered a facial recognition service that could detect Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, which raised concerns among human rights organizations. Alibaba acknowledged in 2020 that its Cloud division had created the discriminatory AI software, expressing its disappointment while asserting that it had not intended to target any particular ethnic group and that the technology was only tested within a controlled environment.