Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 16 August 2020


China’s facial-recognition surveillance secrets revealed in major leak

A screen grab from the facial-recognition software China has installed in residential buildings that are home to members of the Tujia and Miao tribes.
A screen grab from the facial-recognition software China has installed in residential buildings that are home to members of the Tujia and Miao tribes.
  • Exclusive

The Chinese government’s surveillance of ethnic minority groups in their own homes, in their cars and via their mobile phones has been exposed in a major security leak.

The Australian can reveal the Chinese Communist Party has installed facial-recognition software in residential buildings that are home to members of the Tujia and Miao tribes in Yuping Dong Autonomous County near the city of Tongren in the southwest province of Guizhou.

Similar to Uighurs and Tibetans, the Tujia and Miao tribes are designated ethnic minority groups, are disproportionately Christian and have a history of religious persecution by the Chinese government.

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Photographs show how the CCP tracks the identity of each citizen — even children — as they arrive and leave their homes and also monitors their visitors, with some images capturing groups of young people sitting inside together and texting on their mobile phones.

The Chinese government’s facial-recognition database, called the Tongren City Security Facial Recognition System for Building Controls, was subject to a security breach by Chinese activists seeking to expose the invasive treatment of minorities.

The activists leaked the real-time facial recognition data, while it was still operational and live-streaming, to an international group of cyber security analysts specialising in China.

The Australian has obtained the proof of the CCP’s tracking of minority groups in the form of hundreds of stills taken from the live-feed of the surveillance cameras, along with the metadata and tracking data dated from May through to mid-August.

At the time of publishing, the surveillance database was still live.

A member of the international group, former Australian and US government cyber security contractor Robert Potter, said the CCP was monitoring about 110,000 people under this particular surveillance program, with more than a million individual records spread across four servers and covering numerous apartment buildings.

The Chinese government tracks the identity of each citizen — even children — as they arrive and leave their homes.
The Chinese government tracks the identity of each citizen — even children — as they arrive and leave their homes.

“It’s the expansion of facial recognition, which is extensively used in public, and it’s now being applied to homes,” he said. “This definitely is a mass surveillance database in China.

“They are controlling entry and exit to buildings. They are turning people’s houses into prisons. It’s so shameful.”

Mr Potter, who has recently worked with the US State Department in Washington and runs a Canberra cyber-defence firm, Internet 2.0, said what was particularly disturbing about this program was how it classified each citizen according to a risk profile.

“It means within the system they categorise someone’s entry as normal or abnormal. You can see that in the metadata,” he said.

The data attached to the facial-recognition program includes the name of each person, along with their ID number, their licence plate and mobile phone details.

Surveillance technologies that have been used extensively in Tibet and the Xinjiang Province are now being rolled out to target other minorities across China, said Fulbright University professor Christopher Balding, who is also a member of the international group working with Chinese activists.

“The thing that struck me about the data is how much broader the monitoring capability is. It’s a significantly higher level of surveillance, linking it to national ID numbers,” he said.

“It’s also available to the government and it gives them the ability to track your movements (and) guests that might be at your home, and I think that cuts directly to home church activity.

“It clearly gives them the ability to say this person brought in five people to their home on a Sunday morning or to clock if it’s happening at specific times.”

Chinese activists have published claims about the existence of a surveillance operations centre in Tongren that collects information about people’s social relations, and behavioural tendencies, creating an “intelligence information system”.

Drawing on accounts from residents, they claim when people who have been “blacklisted” are identified, a warning notifies security personnel and officers arrive at their homes.

La Trobe University associate professor James Leibold, who specialises in ethnic policy and surveillance in China, said the autonomous regions, which once allowed ethnic minorities to govern themselves, were now “largely a fig leaf, existing in name only”.

He said while the motivation behind this particular surveillance program could not be known for certain, it was likely either the trial of a new technology or the targeting of a religious group.

“Surveillance more generally in China tends to get trialled in areas that are quite remote. They are reluctant to trial new surveillance technologies in major urban centres because of concern about pushback from middle-class elites around privacy issues,” he said.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s senior analyst in the international cyber policy centre, Tom Uren, described the photographs taken under this facial-recognition program as “disturbing” and “voyeuristic”.

He said the Chinese government was using surveillance and facial recognition in a coercive way.

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“Part of the whole point is that people know they are being surveilled and it’s really designed to get people to behave,” he said. “It’s used where governments are trying to control their populations.

“When it’s overt surveillance, when you know you’re being surveilled, there’s no chance you would do what you would naturally do. You only do things that won’t get you in trouble and that constrains people’s freedoms.”

Mr Potter said the research from his team suggested there was a high proportion of Christians inside the targeted minority groups.

“This has a direct application to crackdown on religious practices and privacy in one’s own home,” he said. “Religious practice at home is a normal thing that people do in China to maintain their privacy.”

The Chinese government has been condemned for its use of surveillance on Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in Xingjiang.

The facial-recognition and surveillance systems are used to identify dissidents who are then sent to indoctrination camps in Xinjiang, where more than a million Uighurs have been imprisoned.

Mr Potter said this facial-recognition system was not hacked by Chinese activists — its “backend” was left “completely open”.

The database was still live on Sunday, and information about it was given to relevant government agencies before being made public via The Australian.

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