Chinese police have deployed sophisticated surveillance tools, including facial recognition software and phone tracking, to track protesters caught up in recent protests and quell a historic surge in anger.
Frustration with the severe and prolonged health restrictions to combat covid-19 has given rise to a popular uprising on a scale not seen in decades in the Asian giant.
Protesters also chanted political demands this weekend. Some they even called for the resignation of President Xi Jinpingwho recently took on a third term.
The government called to “repress” the protests and took sides a significant security arsenal, including state-of-the-art surveillance tools to track down protesters.
“It seems that in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou the police are using very high-tech methods,” Wang Shengsheng, a lawyer who offers free legal aid to protesters, told AFP.
“In other cities, they appear to be using surveillance images and facial recognition,” adds this human rights specialist, who lives in Shenzhen (southeast).
Confiscated phones and questions to taxi drivers
In the capital, Beijing, the police were able to use the mobile phone location data. He was also able to obtain this information by requesting it from the taxis carrying the protesters and checking the health passes.
Many people in Beijing “didn’t understand why the police contacted them when they simply walked past the protest site and didn’t participate,” says the expert.
In Shanghai, police summoned identified people for questioning and confiscated their phones “perhaps to extract all their data,” he adds.
In Guangzhou, some people assured the lawyer their Telegram accounts were hacked after police checks during demonstrations.
The Telegram accounts of protesters detained in the capital were still active while they were in prison, friends of those arrested told the lawyer, suggesting police had access to them.
On high alert due to reports of new arrests and police intimidationprotesters message each other in encrypted newsgroups, which can only be accessed using VPN software that is illegal in China.
There they exchange recommendations on how to avoid police infiltration, as well as legal advice on what to do if they are questioned, detained or if their phones are confiscated.
The important thing is to erase all traces from their cell phones. who participated in demonstrations, including conversations, videos and photos.
A resident of the capital told AFP that two friends who had attended protests in Beijing and Shanghai were arrested by police on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night.
His friend in Shanghai was released late Monday evening, but his phone is still in the hands of police, said the man, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
On China’s heavily controlled social media, any user posting content about the protests can be easily traced, as the platforms require their real name to register.
“The content of phones and social media posts is definitely being monitored,” says Rui Zhong, a China specialist at the Wilson Center in Washington.
AFP reporters saw several police officers filming protesters during Sunday’s rally in Beijing.
One protester said she and five of her friends were contacted by police after attending the demonstration in the embassy district.
She said she was summoned to the police station on Tuesday but they didn’t get it because she couldn’t present a recent covid test.
In Shanghai, an AFP reporter witnessed several arrests and saw how Police checked a protester’s phone to see if it had blocked foreign social media in China, used to disseminate information about the protests.
“What is private life? There is no private life!” a police officer told a 17-year-old protester in Shanghai on Monday, according to a recording.
Attorney Wang Shengsheng regrets that “cutting-edge technology is being used” for “public demonstrations” instead of “when people go missing or are killed.”
“If they can manipulate our phones as they please, access our accounts (without consent), what is left of our freedom?” he asks.
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.