Mass surveillance fuels oppression of Uighurs and Palestinians

Israel, like China, has weaponised surveillance technology to suppress peaceful dissent.

A child plays under police surveillance cameras set up to monitor a dirt road intersection in Kuqa in western Xinjiang province. China on July 16, 2014 [File: Ng Han Guan/AP]

Tech-enabled control of a persecuted population. Abusive facial recognition. Severe restrictions on movement. Branding peaceful dissent as “terrorism”.

For many readers, the scenario brings to mind China’s mass human rights violations against millions of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim people. Yet this description would also apply to Israel’s treatment of millions of Palestinians living under occupation.

The Israeli military is reportedly using facial recognition to build a massive database of personal information on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, which includes their photos, family histories and education, and assigns them a security rating. When soldiers, outfitted with an official smartphone Blue Wolf app, scan a Palestinian’s face, the app shows yellow, red or green to indicate whether the person should be detained or allowed to pass.

To one of us – a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch – the Israeli Blue Wolf system is eerily familiar. A similar mass surveillance system is in use by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, called Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which acts as the “brain” behind various sensory systems throughout the region. IJOP is also a big data system, which detects “abnormality” as arbitrarily defined by the authorities.

People whose phones suddenly go “offline” or those who use too much electricity – everyday, lawful behaviour – are automatically singled out by the IJOP for police interrogations and some of them are later detained for “political education” and imprisoned.

In recent years growing attention has been paid to China’s use and export of mass surveillance. But Chinese companies are not alone. Surveillance technologies have proliferated globally in a legal and regulatory vacuum.

Governments have used the spyware, Pegasus, developed by the Israel-based company NSO Group, to hack devices in 45 countries, including those of journalists, dissidents and human rights activists. Pegasus turns an infected device into a portable surveillance tool by gaining access to the phone’s camera, microphone and text messages.

Earlier this month, Pegasus was discovered on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists – three of whom worked for civil society groups that Israel wrongfully designated as “terrorist organisations” in October, effectively outlawing them. In Xinjiang, too, the authorities justify their crimes against humanity against the region’s minority residents as a “strike hard campaign” against terrorism.

In both Xinjiang and the Palestinian-Israeli context, surveillance fuels grave rights abuses by enabling the authorities to quickly identify and neutralise peaceful dissent, and to exert intrusive control over a broad population. The Xinjiang authorities would have found it hard to maintain their granular, round-the-clock control over all 12 million Uighurs – policing their thoughts, the way they dress, whom they associate with – without the aid of surveillance technologies. Surveillance helps Israel, a self-declared Jewish state, maintain its domination over Palestinians, a component of its crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

In a recent article on the Blue Wolf app and the impact of surveillance, the Washington Post quoted a Palestinian living in the West Bank as saying: “We no longer feel comfortable socialising because cameras are always filming us.” This sentiment mirrors what a Turkic Muslim woman whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for a 2018 report said about the corrosive effect of ubiquitous surveillance: “People didn’t visit each other. …If someone – say, another old lady – crosses the street to come to talk to me I’d run away.” The idea that this dystopian reality is taking hold among Palestinian communities is chilling.

International human rights laws require that governments’ collection, use and storage of personal data meet the standards of legality, proportionality and necessity. This means that there should be clear and public legal frameworks that would prevent a government’s collection, analysis, use and storage of personal data from exceeding what is proportional to addressing an aim that is legitimate and that cannot be achieved by using less intrusive measures. Such a framework should also require surveillance to be subject to authorisation and oversight by an independent body.

Governments should pass their own laws to assure that any surveillance they conduct will follow these standards. They should push for a global moratorium on the sale, export, transfer and use of surveillance technology until adequate human rights safeguards are in place. They should also penalise companies that sell these surveillance systems proven to have facilitated severe human rights abuses.

The US government has placed export controls on some Chinese surveillance companies, and recently, on the NSO Group. But such restrictions – which cut off these companies’ access to US technology – are insufficient as these companies are based outside of US jurisdiction.

It may be time for governments to step up their game, and start considering the use of stronger measures, such as US-style Magnitsky Act sanctions on human rights abusers.

While these measures will not end the persecution of millions of Palestinians and Uighurs, they might alleviate the repression and just maybe create some momentum to end the crimes against humanity both populations face.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.