HRW warns over big data in China
20 November 2017 17:14 GMT

Human Rights Watch has warned China is developing a "big brother" system that combines biometric and surveillance data.

The Chinese government should stop building big data policing platforms that aggregate and analyze massive amounts of citizens’ personal information, Human Rights Watch said today. This abusive “Police Cloud” system is designed to track and predict the activities of activists, dissidents, and ethnic minorities, including those authorities say have “extreme thoughts,” among other functions.

China has no enforceable protections for privacy rights against state surveillance.

“It is frightening that Chinese authorities are collecting and centralizing ever more information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, identifying persons who deviate from what they determine to be ‘normal thought,’ and then surveilling them,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Until China has meaningful privacy rights and an accountable police force, the government should immediately cease these efforts.”

The Chinese government has a long track record of amassing large amounts of information about citizens, and it is now actively exploring new technologies, such as big data analytics and cloud computing-based systems, to more efficiently aggregate and mine personal information. Authorities aspire to connect disparate databases to better enable data sharing and analysis across government departments, national and local levels, and from private sources.

Chinese police are using various applications to analyze large volumes and varieties of data, including text, video, and pictures. These applications can deliver useful analytics in real or near-real time, such as monitoring traffic patterns. Chinese police have said the use of big data will improve the police force’s ability to search for suspects, predict crime, and respond efficiently.

But some of these systems also enable the police to arbitrarily gain unprecedented information about the lives of ordinary people, including those who have no connection to wrongdoing.

One of the Ministry of Public Security’s (MPS) most ambitious and privacy-violating big data projects is the “Police Cloud” (警务云) system. The system scoops up information from people’s medical history, to their supermarket membership, to delivery records, much of which is linked to people’s unique national identification numbers. 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. It is designed to uncover relationships between events and people “hidden” to the police by analyzing, for example, who has been staying in a hotel or travelling together. It can also alert the police to activity that might seem unusual – such as when someone who has a local residence frequently stays in a local hotel.

The fact that these systems are designed in part to track groups the authorities deem politically or socially threatening raises serious concerns about social and racial profiling. Through predictive policing, these platforms vow to analyze their past pattern of activities to “alert and warn” the police about their future activities so as to “more effectively intercept” them. Meng Jianzhu – the former Minister of Public Security and the current Secretary of the Communist Party Political and Legal Committee – which oversees the Party-state’s police, procuratorate, and the courts – said in 2015 that big data is important to “find order… in fragmented information” and “to pinpoint a person’s identity.”

Human Rights Watch has analyzed a number of tender documents from police bureaus in Shandong and Jiangsu Provinces, and Tianjin Municipality, as well as academic and press reports. Human Rights Watch has primarily focused on these three regions because these documents are publicly available; Shandong and Jiangsu Province also claim to have some of the most established Police Clouds in the country. The tender documents reviewed for Shandong include those published by police bureau in the major cities of Jinan, Tai’an, and Weihai; for Jiangsu, Yancheng City; for Tianjin, the document was published by the Tianjin Municipal Public Security Bureau.

These tender documents were published between 2015 and September 2017. The Tianjin Police Cloud – at around US$4 million (27 million RMB) – is the most expensive.

The Police Cloud system appears to be a national project. In 2015, the MPS issued a regulation on information sharing, ordering aggregation of data and the construction of provincial-level Police Clouds, which form the basis of a national Police Cloud database.