China developing surveillance technology to monitor ethnic languages

Chinese government is beefing up its surveillance capabilities with a new technology to track communications in languages used by China's various ethnic groups.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

Beijing has beefed up its surveillance capabilities with a new technology to track communications in languages used by China's various ethnic groups.  

The new systems will enable the Chinese government to monitor voice calls, messages sent online, as well as images embedded within the communications line, in areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet where officials do not understand the local language. A report by South China Morning Post cited Ding Xiaoqing, a professor at Tsinghua University's Centre for Intelligent Image and Document Information Processing, who heads the team developing the new technology: "With the help of our technology, they can have first-hand, real-time access to intelligence information. They can also deal with multiple languages with one system." 

Ding added that the technology can translate every major ethnic minority language in China, and supports other overseas languages such as Arabic and Japanese. A more sophisticated surveillance model would help detect important information that currently go unnoticed, she said, referring to last month's attack at Tianamen Square which left five dead and 38 injured. The Chinese government had attributed the incident to Xinjiang separatists. 

Ding said a more robust monitoring system might have identified the warning signs, especially messages embedded in images. "An increasing number of messages are passed around on the Internet in image format to dodge the government's surveillance. Most of the equipment in use these days cannot deal with such information," she said in the report.

According to South China Morning Post, the Chinese government operates a large cybersurveillance system including hundreds of thousands of staff who sieve through online communications to identify social unrest.

Global rights advocates, however, cautioned the added capabilities could result in further suppression of minority groups in China. 

The government had been tightening its grip in recent months, detaining several high-profile microbloggers and filing charges against Web portals as part of increased efforts to clamp down on online rumors. China's Supreme People's Court in September issued a new judicial interpretation stating online users who shared false information deemed defamatory, or that could affect national interest, faced up to three years in prison if their posts garnered 5,000 views or were forwarded 500 times.

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