Biometric data & surveillance used to target sex workers and minority groups in China

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent
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After several years of intensified focus on gathering biometric data and piloting targeted surveillance methods, the Chinese government has established a large police force with the technology to enable a mass detention of sex workers, drug users and Uyghur people, a Muslim ethnic minority group long targeted by Chinese governments. Reporters have claimed that the recent crackdowns are of a level not seen since the Maoist era - and this time the government is using biometric data and new surveillance programs to target its own citizens.

Throughout 2017, Human Rights Watch has been documenting the Chinese government in relation to its focus on collecting “voice pattern” samples of individuals to establish a national voice biometric database. To achieve their aims of developing surveillance systems which can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations, the government enlisted the help of iFlytek, a leaders within speech recognition technology within China.

Human rights watch pointed out that “unlike other types of biometric collection, such as fingerprinting or DNA sampling, individuals may not even realise their voice pattern has been collected, or that they are under surveillance.” Police officers can subject anyone suspected of “violating the law or committing crimes”, including misdemeanors, to this intensified surveillance. Once recorded, it is near impossible for individuals to seek redress from authorities, remove such personal information from databases or police databanks, or even challenge the continued collection of biometric data.

Police databases provide a means for biometric data to be linked to individual identification numbers which in turn can then be linked to a “multi-modal” biometric portrait of individuals alongside any personal information on file, including their ethnicity, home address, and hotel records.

Recordings of individual voice patterns have been used by police to target sex workers - and there are fears a 2017 case which saw 3 sex workers arrested through this technology is a blueprint now being repeated to not only arrest more sex workers, but also Uyghur people and other groups of people targeted by the government.

The arrest of the three sex workers using voiceprint biometric surveillance was promoted on social media platform QQ as an example of policing success, with readers encouraged to relate to the arresting officers who were described as “handsome” and hardworking.

The blow-by-blow account includes pictures of the officers posing, as well as commentary and photos of the lunch enjoyed minutes before the raid on the sex workers’ workplace was conducted. The QQ post details how the three sex workers were taken to a local county hospital, where medical examinations including blood and urine tests, ultrasound and ECG were carried out. According to the post the reasoning behind such tests is regulations which require all individuals who are held in detention to first be examined by a medical practitioner. These regulations are described in detail, seemingly with the aim of suggesting they are for the benefit of the health and wellbeing of the individuals being detained, and not for the benefit of the state and police in obtaining more biometric data.

However, the next procedure following the hospital tests involves police recording a voice print of each of the sex workers at the police station. The predicament of the sex workers as they are transported from the hospital back to the police station where a voiceprint is recorded is illustrated by a photo of the hands of two sex workers, chained together with handcuffs. This photograph is captioned  “这一刻,她们应该是后悔的..” [“At this moment, they ought to be feeling regret]. 

Ultimately, the three woman were taken to the Fuyang City Detention Center, with no comment made as to how long they would be detained at the facility.

When China announced it was closing down the notorious “Re-education through labour” camps in 2014, human rights organisations on the ground expressed fears that the changes were superficial. They reported that most of those held in such facilities (many of whom were sex workers) were merely transferred to “new” detention centres where conditions were similar or even worse. Notably, detention centres have provided further means for money to be made from inmates, as they require payment on entry in addition to regular ongoing costs incurred for basic items such as sanitary napkins or soap. According to reports from Asia Catalyst, “the original intention … was to penalise unlawful behaviour that did not reach the level of a criminal offence but it has become a penalty even harsher than criminal penalties,”

Sex workers have told media for years that raids on their workplaces operate as a money-making venture for individuals and agencies, from corrupt police officers who demand payment of fines many times that of the legally dictated amount, to detention centre operators who charge exorbitant amounts for essential items. There is also money to be made from the forced labour those held in detention are subjected to, and ultimately many inmates being forced to find ways to buy their way out, which leads to them incurring debts requiring six months or more of work to pay off.

"Nobody changes their career," said one sex worker who experienced detention. "All we learned is that if you have power and money it's good and if you are poor it's bad. It was an education in how to bully people."