Wed, Feb 20, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Data leak shows China’s extensive surveillance

BIG BROTHER WATCHING:The discovery by a Dutch cybersecurity researcher shows a trove of personal and real-time data on over 2.5 million Xinjiang residents


A woman and a child wait outside a school entrance mounted with surveillance cameras and barricades with multiple layers of barbed wire in Peyzawat in China’s Xinjiang region on Aug. 31 last year.

Photo: AP

The Chinese database Victor Gevers found online was not just a collection of old personal details.

It was a compilation of real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts.

Alongside their names, birthdates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited — mosque, hotel, restaurant.

The discovery by Gevers, a Dutch cybersecurity researcher who revealed it on Twitter last week, has given a rare glimpse into China’s extensive surveillance of Xinjiang, a remote region home to an ethnic minority population that is largely Muslim.

The area has been blanketed with police checkpoints and security cameras that apparently are doing more than just recording what happens.

The database Gevers found appears to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, he said, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours.

It illustrates how far China has taken facial recognition — in ways that would raise alarm about privacy concerns in many other countries — and serves as a reminder of how easily technology companies can leave supposedly private records exposed to global snoopers.

Gevers found that SenseNets, a Chinese facial recognition company, had left the database unprotected for months, exposing people’s addresses, government ID numbers and more.

He said that after he informed SenseNets of the leak, the database became inaccessible.

“This system was open to the entire world and anyone had full access to the data,” Gevers said, adding that a system designed to maintain control over individuals could have been “corrupted by a 12-year-old.”

He said it included the coordinates of places where the individuals had recently been spotted by “trackers” — likely to be surveillance cameras. The stream indicated that the data are constantly being updated with information on people’s whereabouts, he said in an interview over a messaging app.

Gevers posted a graph online showing that 54.9 percent of the people in the database were identified as Han Chinese, while 28.3 percent were Uighur and 8.3 percent were Kazakh, both Muslim ethnic minority groups.

A person who answered the phone at SenseNets declined a request for comment.

The Xinjiang regional government did not respond to faxed questions.

Xinjiang, which borders central Asia in China’s far west, has been subject to severe security measures in recent years as part of what the government says has been a successful program to quash extremist and separatist movements.

The US and other countries have condemned the crackdown, in which an estimated 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in internment camps that the government says are vocational training centers designed to rid the region of latent extremism.

Gulzia, an ethnic Kazakh woman who did not want her last name used out of fear of retribution, said that cameras were being installed everywhere, even in cemeteries, in late 2017. Now living across the border in Kazakhstan, she said by telephone on Monday that she had been confined to house arrest in China and taken to a police station, where they photographed her face and eyes, and collected samples of her voice and fingerprints.

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