Weaponising Big Data: Decoding China’s digital surveillance in Tibet

February 7, 2024
Turquoise Roof

Executive Summary

This report uncovers the Chinese government’s escalated digital surveillance in Tibet, marked by the compulsory installation of the ‘National Anti-Fraud Centre’ app on smartphones. Initially presented as a fraud prevention tool, the app is in fact a crucial element of a larger surveillance network. This report, developed in collaboration with Tibet Watch, London, is based on accounts from a Tibetan refugee in Golog in eastern Tibet1 (present day Qinghai province).

Our investigation conducted a dynamic analysis of the Android and Windows Desktop versions of this app, finding that data collected could extend beyond internet fraud detection, feeding into broader control mechanisms. This includes integration with databases managed by the Criminal Investigation Bureau, reflecting wider strategies of surveillance and oversight in the region.

The report also investigates the ‘Tibet Underworld Criminal Integrated Intelligence Application Platform’, a sophisticated big data policing platform. Analysis of government procurement notices revealed that this system amalgamates data from various existing Public Security Bureau systems in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) into a central Oracle database. This database system, developed on top of U.S. technology, is instrumental in a campaign that criminalises even moderate cultural, religious expressions, language rights advocacy, and social work in Tibet.

This investigation into the weaponisation of big data analytics in Tibet by the Chinese security state sheds new light on the reach of Party mechanisms into the personal sphere. This is not only changing the way people communicate, but having a society-wide ‘chilling effect’ on the way they think, feel and relate to each other, in many cases leading to a complete breakdown of contact.

The integration of a panoply of advanced technologies in Tibet – AI-driven systems fusing facial recognition with internet browsing and app-based monitoring, to DNA and genomic surveillance, and GIS tracking data – underlines the emergence of a terrifying approach to governance in the 21st century. It uses machine learning to power systems that prioritise state control and suppression over individual liberties and self-determination.

There are clear parallels in the deployment of spyware and Universal Forensic Extraction Devices (UFEDs) at police checkpoints in both Tibet and Xinjiang. Similarly, sophisticated big data analytics platforms are in operation in both regions, and although specific systems might differ, the same overarching strategy of control and suppression through intelligence-led policing is evident in both regions. Civilian AI-driven surveillance systems deployed in Tibet and Xinjiang find their origins in military Command and Control (C4ISR) systems-ofsystems, and integrated PLA joint operations doctrine. Chinese software developers have acknowledged this evolution in which cities and towns where people live are treated like a battlefield.