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A Wider Skynet: Surveilling Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

As a UK panel noted how China uses heavy surveillance and AI to monitor minorities, it is more important than ever to address the impacts of such digital and technological advances on Uyghurs

It may not come as a surprise to know that the Chinese Government conduct surveillance of its citizens on a scale unseen by any other nation in the world. No other country has both the will and the economic means to be able to pull off such attentive domestic espionage.

Concerns about this incredibly sophisticated technology and its abhorrent usage has led an independent, non-governmental committee in Britain -by the name of The Uyghur Tribunal– to investigate evidence in a testimony by Conor Healy – the government director of IPVM, a global leader of the video surveillance industry and foreign experts in Chinese techniques of digital surveillance [1].

The panel concluded and confirmed how China was using these systems to monitor ethnic minorities and to predict the likelihood of violent uprisings.

What is Skynet?

The small beginnings of what would become SkyNet demonstrate a rapid change in China which coincides with the ascension of Xi Jinping to the Presidency. Yet, the striking immediacy and massive scale also say much in relation to China’s approach in the 21st Century.

But what is SkyNet? Differing somewhat from its namesake, derived from the antagonistic artificial hivemind in the Terminator movies, it serves as China’s surveillance program and involves a network of over 500 million CCTV cameras surveyed by police and government officials but also run past AI systems and facial recognition software [2].

Modern state surveillance in China began in 2003, with the development of the Golden Shield Program [3]. This developed into two further surveillance projects: Safe Cities, to assist disaster warning and traffic management and SkyNet, focused specifically on camera installation and responsive facial recognition algorithms.

China purports that these extensive measures assist in its quick capture and arrest of criminals; yet in his testimony, Healy saw no legitimate reason for the abilities of the software.

Furthermore, Xu Xu, writing in the American Journal of Political Science, noted how local authorities have integrated the networks with public transport blacklists and national ID databases, meaning that if anyone perceived to be a criminal purchase a bus, train or plane ticket, the police will be notified immediately [4].

The 2016 Five-year plan included an aim to cover 100% of public space by 2020 and despite the fact this goal is thought to be near enough achieved, the Orwellian reach of this technology has not merely been restricted to public space. Phone conversations are often recorded and cameras have been known to be installed into people’s homes.

Even in 2013, trials were conducted to introduce special TVs into the homes of people in Pingyi County. Here, they themselves could watch live security footage and were instructed to press a button and inform the police if anything seemed out of the ordinary.

But don’t worry. Any good Chinese citizen, wholeheartedly committed to the cause of Communism and driven by a love for Xi, will be fine. Probably.

What Does This Mean For Uyghurs?

With all of this in mind, the implications for the Uyghurs are catastrophic.

Currently, it’s thought that up to 1 million Uyghurs could have been forced into detention or ‘re-education’ camps [5]. Although the specific number cannot be certified, it can be expected that it will continue to rise. The New York Times has reported on the express evidence for the racial profiling of Uyghurs enabled through AI. This is something which experts suggest is the first example of its kind in the world -due to its intentional conduct.

Surveillance in Xinjiang -the north-western province home to the majority of Uyghurs- is significantly different to that in other parts of China, particularly those with Han majorities. In addition to SkyNet elements present in the rest of China, Xinjiang residents must adhere to DNA, blood, voice and image-based identification checks [6].

However, the extreme surveillance of Uyghurs spreads out of Xinjiang at an alarming rate as other authorities in neighbouring provinces request. One example includes law enforcement in Shaanxi which requested technology able to “identify Uyghur and non-Uyghur attributes”.

It is under the guise of protecting against terrorism that Beijing has imposed these measures on Uyghur populations since 2014. However, it may be suggested that a considerable reason for the persecution and genocide against Uyghurs is to consolidate Chinese political and cultural dominance over all of its territory.

As the techniques of facial recognition become more and more advanced, more Uyghurs will undoubtedly be sent to suffer the horrific conditions of Chinese Internment camps, where evidence has been found of inmates being raped, sterilised or forced into labour. Crimes against humanity which many scholars attribute to be the hallmarks of genocide.

Although I found out about the issue of Uyghur persecution quite a while ago, the extent to which Uyghurs must be in constant fear wasn’t as known to me. Enabled by the SkyNet and greatly exacerbated over recent years due to the technological advances pursued by the Chinese Government, this is an international issue that will not fade away.

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