Digital Persecution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 21st April 2022.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 4:35 pm, 21st April 2022

The hon. Member, who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for freedom of religion or belief, makes excellent points and I thank him for doing so. It is so important that we highlight that the Ukrainians’ right to freely practise their religions or beliefs, whatever they may be, is a key aspect of what the leadership of Ukraine and its people are fighting for today. We applaud and stand with them.

Returning specifically to the subject of this debate, digital persecution, I want to put on record my appreciation and thanks to Open Doors for the recent conference it organised, partnered with the Universities of Birmingham and Roehampton, which invited papers on three core themes: surveillance, censorship and disinformation. I also want to thank many of those who contributed to that conference and to my speech today, and those who supplied papers. My speech is all too short to do justice to this issue, so I urge parliamentary colleagues and others listening to this debate to access the conference online—it was recorded by Open Doors—and to access the open source of papers by the contributors, including Professor Francis Davis of Birmingham University, Dr Ewelina Ochab, author Jeremy Peckham, Dr Pasquale Annicchino of the University of Foggia, Chung Ching Kwong of the University of Hamburg, Dr Daniel Aguirre of the University of Roehampton, Rahima Mahmut, UK director of the World Uyghur Congress, and others.

Technology and its extensive communication capabilities can of course be used for good, as we all saw during the pandemic, but, as Open Doors states,

“digital technology enhances state capacity for surveillance of religious minorities and censorship of their speech. It also greatly assists the spread of disinformation against religious minorities by state and non-state actors, which can have lethal consequences for those minorities.”

Misuse of technology has played a crucial role in some of the most egregious atrocities perpetrated in recent years, including the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, and of the Yazidis in Iraq.

Religious minorities are often subject to state surveillance, often because of their very status as minorities. This can be either targeted surveillance of specific individuals or groups, or mass surveillance of large groups of people. This may include CCTV, including facial and emotional recognition; device listening; spyware; state monitoring of social networks; tracking, proximity and location apps; and large-scale data harvesting. I shall explain some of that in a little more detail later.

Examples of digital censorship include publication banning; disabling websites and applications; blocking websites, communications and social media posts, including state moderation and firewalls; punishing users who visit particular websites; hacking; cancelling of activities, platforms and public personae, often without reason or redress; and financial freezing.

Disinformation is the communication of deliberately misleading or biased information, the manipulation of narrative or facts, and propaganda, which we are becoming increasingly aware of in Russia’s information war against Ukraine. Examples of disinformation include propaganda, including advertising; targeted fake news; discord bots strategically magnifying discord, including trolling algorithms; and network incitement of mob violence.

During the last few minutes, I have given many examples of the misuse of technology and have used technical terms. Perhaps I have given too many examples for anyone to absorb unless they are already engaged in this subject, so I shall give just one example of how such misuse of technology works in practice—namely, the misuse of technology to oppress the Uyghurs in China, of whom an estimated 2 million, possibly even up to 3 million, are incarcerated in detention camps.

At the conference, Rahima Mahmut’s evidence about the plight of the Uyghurs set a sombre and moving tone. She told us that the Chinese Government have invested huge sums of money in advanced surveillance technology, including facial recognition software, voice recognition software, DNA and data collection, constructing a huge network of cameras and physical checkpoints. All the information gathered on people is stored in what is called an integrated joint operations platform. The data is then used to classify Uyghurs by colour—blue, yellow or red—and therefore to classify their threat level. This has not only resulted in the mass criminalisation of the Uyghur population, but led them to question their own sense of self-worth and self-belief.

How does this work? The integrated joint operations platform is used by police and officials. It is a mobile phone app used to collect data on individual Uyghurs for an assessment to be made about whether someone should be arrested. The extent and penetration of the personal data collected is deeply concerning. Data is collected on individuals as they move about in public places, including from CCTV, by voice recognition and even through their relationship with others who may have political or religious affiliations or convictions. The voice recognition software can not only monitor conversations from a mobile phone, but record a voice from 300 metres away while simultaneously blocking out the surrounding noise.

The technology is now even used in schools to record what Uyghur children say in the classroom—even those as young as kindergarten children—so that, in effect, children are unwitting spies on their own parents. Key words are recorded and then detected by the app to flag concerns to the authorities and indicate dangerous or threatening tendencies. These include words such as “prayers” or “mosque”, or even “get together” or “gather”. As soon as a key word is picked up by the app, this will be fed into the integrated joint operations platform app as suspicious activity, together with all the other data being collected about an individual.

Someone can also receive a colour for many reasons, such as simply eating in a restaurant where someone else with a red mark against their name is also eating. Once the information is gathered and reaches a certain level, an individual is flagged with a colour—red, yellow or blue—which indicates their threat level and how they will be treated, in particular as they move through the many checkpoints manned by police. Someone who is blue can pass through, though of course their colour can and may well change. If an individual is passing through a checkpoint with a yellow mark, an alarm goes off. If it is red, the police will automatically arrest the person immediately. In other words, the app—a computer—is triggering an arrest.

Once arrested, individuals can then be interrogated by computer, too. Police can place an individual not in a normal chair for questioning, but in a tiger chair, in which the body is completely locked and highly stressed, resulting in inevitable physical responses. During questioning, a computer will then monitor heightened changes in heartbeat and muscle movement, and on that basis a computer can indicate that the person must be guilty. Imprisonment can then be meted out.

An individual can be surveyed, detected, arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by technology, simply because the computer says so, and surveillance technology of this nature is being sold around the world. According to an Open Technology Fund report of 2019,

“over 100 countries have purchased, imitated, or received training on information controls from China and Russia.”