A misconfigured online database has exposed new details of China’s tyrannical surveillance apparatus, which the country’s government has used to further suppress one of its most persecuted populations.
In the past year, there’s been an uptick of reporting on China’s oppression of the Uyghurs. In August, for instance, Business Insider detailed how the mostly Muslim minority group, largely confined to China’s Xinjiang region, came to occupy “one of the most intrusive police states in the world.” That same month, a story in the Atlantic described how a million Turkic Muslims in China are being detained in so-called interment camps; forced, on top of being tortured and killed, to renounce the very faith that underpins their social identity—to adopt in its place a philosophy more consistent with that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Here we see, at gunpoint, the involuntary “re-education” of entire communities and the manual obliteration of a culture through an apartheid predicated on extreme religious prejudice. Nothing could be worse.
Behind all of this is a grotesque technological achievement whereby billions of dollars have been poured into the intensive monitoring of a people who, by the sheer mathematics of it all, could pose no real extremist threat to the security of the Red Giant. There’s no question that China has unleashed a surveillance apparatus unprecedented in its scale to collect even the most granular details about the daily lives of its citizens. New examples of that seem to arrive each day.
This week, one security researcher reportedly found himself peering through the looking glass after stumbling upon a massive database reportedly controlled by a Chinese firm called SenseNets, which had inadvertently left its shades undrawn.
ZDNet reported Thursday that data-breach hunter Victor Gevers, whose work has largely involved unearthing publicly accessible but otherwise confidential databases, discovered what was described as “highly detailed and highly sensitive information” on the residents of Xinjiang. Among the descriptors—names, ID card numbers, addresses, dates of birth, employers—was a steady stream of GPS coordinates being input at a rapid pace.
Here’s a description of the find offered by ZDNet security reporter Catalin Cimpanu:
For each user, there was also a list of GPS coordinates, locations where that user had been seen.
The database also contained a list of “trackers” and associated GPS coordinates. Based on the company’s website, these trackers appear to be the locations of public cameras from where video had been captured and was being analyzed.
Some of the descriptive names associated with the “trackers” contained terms such as “mosque,” “hotel,” “police station,” “internet cafe,” “restaurant,” and other places where public cameras would normally be found.
According to Cimpanu, the database wasn’t just a forgotten relic of some retired census project. Instead, Gevers disclosed that, within a 24-hour period, the database had added some 6.7 million GPS coordinates, the telltale signs of an active surveillance operation. The most benign daily activities of the Uyghurs are being intently monitored as if through some celestial microscope.
Reacting as he would in any other case, carrying a responsibility to warn companies when they’re inadvertently disclosing personally identifiable information, Gevers contacted SenseNets about the issue. According to ZDNet, the database was restricted shortly thereafter, blocked from being accessed from non-Chinese IPs.
Gevers, Cimpanu wrote, “now regrets helping the company secure its oppression tool.”
Surveillance in Xinjiang has reached levels exceeding even the wildest fever-dreams of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, architect of the all-seeing Panopticon. There, the sky there is pockmarked by flocks of Dickian-esque robotic birds designed to evade detection by radar and human eye; a distorted reflection of nature turned deliberately menacing through mechanization. The reality in China, a place where even public bathrooms are being designed by government decree to keep track of every citizen’s movements, is more harrowing than any dystopia our imaginations can conjure.
That’s because it’s real; it’s happening, not in some distant future, but right now; and every forecast today says it will only continue to worsen.