Expert explains how China uses smartphones to spy on Christians in their homes
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 16, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The Chinese government is using digital technology – partly made by American companies – to target and repress religious groups more than ever before, a foreign policy expert told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Wednesday.
While religious persecution has always been a part of communist China, new technologies have made “that repression far more effective,” Chris Meserole, who works with the Brookings Institution and teaches at Georgetown University, testified.
During a hearing of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Wednesday, Meserole explained that formerly, the government was generally only able to “to repress public forms of religious organizations, practices, identities, and beliefs, particularly in urban areas.” Religion practiced privately at home, on the other hand, was relatively safe.
“Digital technologies have changed that,” argued Meserole. “As processors, sensors, and cameras have proliferated, the extent of religious life that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] can surveil has expanded dramatically.”
“Video and audio surveillance of public mosques, churches, and temples has exploded,” he pointed out. “Rather than simply shut down a religious school or house of worship, authorities can monitor all activity and individuals within those facilities and sanction undesired behavior or individuals with greater specificity.”
In fact, Meserole said, the government recently shut down a church in Beijing for refusing to install video surveillance equipment in the building.
Digital technologies also help the government to target underground religious organizations and networks, he continued. “From video feeds to GPS tracking, authorities have greater ability to detect religious groups that meet and operate covertly.”
“In Xinjiang, for instance, smartphone location data, vehicle location data, checkpoint logs, facial recognition technology, and video feeds from buses, streets, and drones, can be used to identify when individuals in the same religious network meet together covertly, potentially even in real-time.”
Meserole said that video surveillance can identify religious symbols. That data is then used “for real-time classification by police and security services around China, with authorities being notified when someone who is classified as a Uighur Muslim or Tibetan Buddhist appears on a CCTV feed.”
The foreign policy expert explained that “networked video feeds have made it possible to observe religious practices in a far wider range of contexts,” as opposed to personally sending government officials to church services, which used to be the case.
“For instance, the Sharp Eyes project enables authorized individuals within a community to view feeds not only from public security cameras, but also from smartphones and smart TVs, including those within private residences and homes,” said Meserole.
“Since China’s recent counterterrorism law and Xinjiang’s ‘de-extremification regulations’ refer only vaguely to religious behaviors that may lead to terrorism and extremism, such systems would make it possible for authorities to detain individuals for privately observing customary religious practices.”
In his final point during his testimony before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Meserole observed that “digital technologies have also made it easier to monitor the religious beliefs an individual expresses and engages with.”
“The smartphone in particular has revolutionized state surveillance of religious belief,” he said. “Not only are Chinese authorities able to monitor messages on WeChat and other applications, but they can also require individuals to install logging software that tracks all video, audio, and text stored on the phone or accessed online.”
He added that the Chinese government does not stop at surveillance of its population, but instead combines these measures “with longstanding forms of mass repression.”
Tony Perkins, head of the pro-family lobby organization Family Research Council and one of nine USCIRF commissioners, emphasized that “key technological components driving China’s surveillance state come from American businesses and researchers, while some companies have actively cooperated with Chinese authorities to make such surveillance possible.”
Perkins even mentioned some American businesses by name. “We know China’s surveillance industry depends on imports of advanced processors and sensors from American companies, including Intel and Nvidia.”
He also referred to “Google’s planned development of Project Dragonfly” – canceled only after the tech giant’s employees protested the initiative – which “would have enabled its search engine to conform to China’s Great Firewall censorship standards.”
Perkins said “we also have a responsibility to ensure that the fruits of American innovation are not distorted into a dystopia.”
USCIRF was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, monitoring “the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.” The organization releases an annual report on the state of religious freedom worldwide.