Alison Killing: Investigating China's Repression of the Uyghurs Journalist Alison Killing explains her investigation in Xinjiang, China, where the government has used facial recognition cameras to track Uyghurs and detain them in camps across the region.

How facial recognition allowed the Chinese government to target minority groups

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today - What's in a Face. How our faces are captured, where that data ends up and who has access to it.

Do you use Instagram? Do you let Google Maps track you? Do you, I don't know, let - open your iPhone with your face? (Laughter).

ALISON KILLING: Oh, God. So I'm pretty privacy conscious, as you might imagine. I don't allow Google to store my location. I don't have the face unlock turned on on my phone. And that is in part because I'm just aware of, like, how sensitive the data is. And I feel so self-conscious about it.

ZOMORODI: This is Alison Killing. She's a journalist who, ironically, uses all sorts of data that's available online to track the actions of authoritarian governments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KILLING: So all of the digital traces that we leave behind on the internet, like, how can we use those to investigate? And I mostly focus on human rights.

ZOMORODI: In 2021, Alison won the Pulitzer Prize for her investigations into China, a place where people's faces and movements are constantly being watched.

KILLING: They've really worked to sort of cover cities in a way that they are able to obtain as much data as possible. So placing cameras in high-traffic areas. So, for example, at the entrance to a neighborhood where they can then say, OK, we know everybody who is in this neighborhood now. We know whether they're in or when they've left.

ZOMORODI: China has the world's largest surveillance network, and cameras watch over residential complexes, office buildings, train stations, shopping malls.

KILLING: So these are very high - traffic places where they can then say like, OK, these are the people who are in this area so that they can then control that area. They're collecting a lot of data and there's huge ambition about the things that they would like to do with it. A lot of work has gone into the processing tools at the back end of this software to identify people by gender and age and then controversially also by ethnicity.

ZOMORODI: And as you may know, the Chinese government has been tracking one large group of people, in particular, the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in a western region called Xinjiang.

KILLING: Yeah. There's been a lot of discrimination. There's been intermittent crackdowns on the practice of Islam. But then in 2009, there were two Uyghur workers killed, and that led to protests which turned violent. And about 200 people were killed. And this was kind of the start as well of the Chinese authorities starting to crack down on the region and seeing it as a very violent place, seeing it as a site of terrorism.

ZOMORODI: The incident ushered in an era of Chinese control of the Uyghurs using all kinds of tactics.

KILLING: So I think from sort of 2013, 2014, we saw the start of this real campaign of oppression in Xinjiang with the installation of this incredibly invasive surveillance state. And The New York Times has done a lot of investigation on this topic where they actually found documents from tech companies which were boasting that they could identify Uyghurs using facial recognition software. So one of the first things that we saw was the creation of these - this network of detention camps.

ZOMORODI: You know, Alison, we were just talking to Parmy Olson - she's a tech reporter - about how people view facial recognition in the Western world. And it always - it often feels like what-if scenarios. But here in China, we are talking about the worst-case scenario come true with proof that a minority are being tracked and rounded up because you could see the camps on satellite imagery.

KILLING: Yeah. In the satellite imagery, we saw them starting to appear in late 2016. And these stories started to emerge that hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared into these camps. And, you know, nobody knew where they were.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In the far west of China, evidence is building that a monstrous crime is taking place.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: An estimated 1 million Chinese Muslims have vanished.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Uyghurs are now being rounded up by the hundreds of thousands.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: There are many accounts of people who have had their relatives disappear into the camps. And we don't really know what's happening to them.

ZOMORODI: Alison Killing picks up the story from the TEDx stage.

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KILLING: I got involved in investigating Xinjiang in the summer of 2018, when I met Megha Rajagopalan, an American journalist who had been working in China for several years. Over the past few years, China has been carrying out a campaign of forcible assimilation and several nations have described it as a genocide. It's estimated that over a million people have been disappeared into detention camps. And while the Chinese government claims that these are part of a benign program of reeducation, dozens of former detainees describe being tortured and abused and women being forcibly sterilized.

And yet, for a long time, we lacked information about what was happening in Xinjiang because the Chinese government controls the internet tightly and restricts journalists' work in the region. Journalists would be followed or detained. And the authorities occasionally even went so far as to set up fake roadworks or staged car crashes to prevent access to certain roads. Local people who did speak to journalists faced the risk of being sent to a detention camp for doing so.

Megha had been the first journalist to visit one of the camps. But shortly after publishing her article, the Chinese authorities declined to renew her visa, and she had to leave. Other journalists had managed to visit a handful of the camps, but this still represented a fraction of what we believed was out there, and no one knew where the others were. But Megha was keen to find the rest. She just needed to find a way to work effectively from outside China.

ZOMORODI: And so this is where you come into the story, Alison, because you and Megha decided to team up.

KILLING: Yeah. And so I met Megha at this workshop in the summer of 2018. I'd been doing a lot of cartography work and satellite imagery. And we got talking. And we realized that we maybe had a complementary skill set to be able to find these camps. You know, the way that Megha found this first camp was through satellite imagery. And so she had the idea that that could be a good way to find the rest. But it's still - like, Xinjiang is absolutely massive. So you can't just, like, scour all of the satellite imagery of the region. We needed to work out where to look.

There was no street-level imagery, but as I zoomed in on the satellite images, this weird thing happened. A light gray square suddenly appeared above the location of the camp and then disappeared just as quickly as I zoomed in further. It was a bit like the map wasn't loading properly, but then I zoomed out and again only for the same thing to happen. I realized it couldn't be a problem with the map loading because the tiles would have been in the browser's cache. And when I found the same thing happening at the other locations we knew to be camps, I realized that we had a technique we could use to find the rest of the network.

It's quite rare for maps and satellite images to have these blank spots because blank areas tend to draw attention to themselves. But here, we got lucky. Obscuring the camps had inadvertently revealed all of their locations.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

KILLING: We worked with developer Christo Buschek, who specializes in documenting human rights issues and building tools for open-source researchers to map the masked tile locations. We had to work quickly and secretively to map the masked tiles before anyone found out what we were doing and removed them because our investigation relied on access to that information. The idea was that we could go and look at the masked tile locations and then look at that same image - at that same location in other, unaltered satellite imagery and see what was there.

Zooming in on the satellite imagery, we can see the barbed wire in the courtyards that creates exercise pens for the detainees adjacent to the buildings. In other images, we can even see people, all wearing red uniforms, lined up in the courtyard. These features could help us decide whether a location was a camp or not. As we investigated further, we realized that the camps' program had evolved away from the early days of makeshift camps in former schools and hospitals and had become more permanent, that the camps were now larger, higher security and purpose-built.

This is the largest camp that we know of. It's in Dabancheng. The complex is two miles long. And it would cover a quarter of New York's Central Park. In the satellite images, we can see the thick perimeter walls, the guard towers and these blue-roofed buildings, which we believe to be factories. We estimate that this complex can hold over 40,000 people without overcrowding. In total, we found 348 locations bearing the hallmarks of camps and prisons. And we believe that this is close to being the full network. We estimate that these facilities have been built to hold more than a million people. That's enough space to detain one in every 25 of Xinjiang's residents.

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ZOMORODI: Wow. Your one little lucky revelation, finding that quirk on the digital map, led to a horrifying and huge discovery. And how did China respond to the allegations?

KILLING: So at the beginning, when the rumors were first emerging of all of these people disappearing into camps, there was denial on the part of the Chinese government that this was happening. By mid-2018, the U.N. was - had made a statement about what was happening in Xinjiang and raising concerns and sort of saying it was one of the most urgent human rights crises in the world at that time. And the Chinese government was then under pressure to respond to that.

And what they started to say was, like, well, you know, these places do exist. But they're education and vocational schools. People are there voluntarily. They're learning skills which will allow them to get higher-paid factory jobs. That wasn't true. People were taken there forcibly. In fact, the people who were initially targeted to be sent to the camps were the most highly educated people in those communities. So you know, the Chinese government's claims about these being vocational schools just weren't credible.

ZOMORODI: So where do things stand now in terms of what you can do with this knowledge that you have accumulated other than share it with us?

KILLING: Yeah. One of the big things that has been done - I mean, we've seen sanctions on key individuals within the Chinese Communist Party. We've also seen sanctions on goods coming out of Xinjiang. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act came into force earlier this year. And that bans any products coming out of Xinjiang because it's very, very likely that goods coming out of Xinjiang have involved forced labor. And it's very difficult to prove that they haven't. And so that is - has also been a big impact that we've seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KILLING: With social media data and satellite imagery, we can provide evidence of human rights abuses in a way that wasn't possible before. We can move beyond looking at individual instances of human rights violations to show the scale of what's happened. We can corroborate the testimony of eyewitnesses and provide further proof of their stories. We can build a more detailed picture of what's happening to inform policymakers or to provide evidence that can be presented in court. With open-source data, we can provide the evidence needed for accountability and then, hopefully, action. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That's Allison Killing. She's an investigative journalist and an architect. In 2021, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting. You can see her full talk at ted.com

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ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week, What's in a Face. This episode was produced by Andrea Gutierrez, James Delahoussaye and Katie Monteleone. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour, James Delahoussaye, Rachel Faulkner White and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran and Katherine Sypher. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our audio engineer was Kwesi Lee. Research support came from Zazil Davis-Vazquez. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Jimmy Gutierrez and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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