An international human rights organization is urging the Chinese government to stop building big data policing technologies that aggregate and analyze citizens’ personal information.  Though governments collecting information about its citizens is not new, China has begun pursuing newer and ambitious technologies, such as big data analytics, facial recognition, and cloud computing, to better and more quickly aggregate, mine, and leverage personal information.

Chinese police are using different systems to analyze large volumes and types of data, including text, video, and images, to monitor and predict the behavior of certain targeted groups, including terrorists, activists, dissidents and ethnic minorities. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization based in New York, these systems “also enable the police to arbitrarily gain unprecedented information about the lives of ordinary people, including those who have no connection to wrongdoing.”

HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement, “[i]t is frightening that Chinese authorities are collecting and centralizing ever more information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, identifying persons who deviate from what they determine to be ‘normal thought,’ and then surveilling them.”

According to HRW, one such endeavor, named “Police Cloud,” is a system that the Chinese government currently uses to collect a wide variety of information regarding citizens, including medical histories, supermarket memberships and delivery records.  The system then employs big data analytics to track people’s movements, activities and associations.  More concerningly, HRW also believes that China is using this information to predict future behavior, or “predictive policing.”

China’s lack of any enforceable protections for citizens’ privacy rights against state surveillance makes the government’s use of these advanced technologies particularly troubling.  Unlike the privacy frameworks in many neighboring countries, including Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, China does not have a central privacy or data protection law that defines, regulates, and protects the collection, use, and handling of personally identifiable information from data subjects.

To the contrary, China has promulgated several laws and regulations that authorize state actors and private entities to collect, retain, and use personally identifiable information, including the State Security Law and the Cybersecurity Law.

Though HRW admits that preventing criminal activity is a legitimate state interest, it questions whether the use of these advanced big data policing technologies are the right solution. It notes that “predictive tools often point to the same old patterns, making it likely for policing to replicate old mistakes or biases … [t]his throws into doubt whether the use of these predictive tools adds much new, and whether they are either a necessary or proportionate intrusion on the rights of individuals.”