Human rights and digital spycraft
By Mark Hurst • April 1, 2022
I welcomed Ethan Gutmann to Techtonic this week for one of the more disturbing interviews I’ve ever conducted. The title of Gutmann’s 2014 book gives a preview: The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem. You can stream the interview or the entire show, download the podcast, or look through the links to sources and further reading.
As Gutmann explained in the first half of the interview, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for years has systematically engaged in organ harvesting, targeting political dissidents and religious minorities locked up in the country’s vast system of camps and prisons. A decade ago, the focus was Falun Gong adherents and “house Christians” (referring to members of secret house churches outside the control of the CCP). Today the targets are more likely to be Muslim Uyghurs in the northwest Xinjiang region.
The reason for the shift, Gutmann says, is functional: organs are most valuable when taken from healthy people in their late 20s or early 30s. Most Falun Gong and Christian prisoners were young ten years ago. These days the young and healthy prisoners tend to be Uyghurs.
The system is deadly, efficient, and profitable. Gutmann has interviewed refugees from various Chinese camps who recount similar stories of young people taken in the middle of the night, disappearing, never seen again. Doctors have described surgeries for extracting organs – the patient dies, of course – after which the organs are sped off to a wealthy buyer.
And the organs are valuable. Transplant tourists from abroad will pay tens of thousands of dollars for a body part. Gutmann ran through some of the market prices in our interview. Even more chilling was his description of the complex of buildings in one Xinjiang town: a detention center sits next to a transplant hospital, which sits next to a crematorium, itself under 24-hour guard. The nearby airport has a special lane for transplants – but only for outgoing flights.
The reason I’m telling you this, and why I focused an entire episode of Techtonic on Gutmann’s work, is not simply because of his findings about organ harvesting, though they’re important on their own. There’s a larger story here about how technology is changing how human-rights work is being done worldwide. It’s a warning to all of us, no matter where we live, as governments everywhere adopt the systems of digital surveillance.
Years ago, Gutmann says, it was much less difficult to meet with refugees from the camps. This was before government spy cameras were installed on the streets of Xinjiang cities, on the buildings, inside mosques, sometimes inside personal homes. It was before people carried around personal tracking devices – also known as “smartphones” – which continuously stream location data, as well as social media activity and who-knows-what-else, to government fusion centers. This was before those fusion centers, weaponized with AI, could immediately detect any irregularity in the predicted behavior of an individual citizen, and notify the police. Today, in such an environment, meeting with a human-rights researcher means risking one’s life, and the life of one’s family. The digital surveillance state – total, ubiquitous, inescapable – is the enemy of human-rights work.
Yet Gutmann still manages to meet with refugees, though not in Xinjiang. During our interview he described a recent trip to “one of the ’stans” (he would never be allowed inside China, he says) to interview a witness who had been in the camps. He needed to arrive undetected and safely transport the audio back home. Above all, he needed to keep the refugee’s identity secret from China, and from local authorities who share data with China. These days, any refugee found talking to a human-rights researcher risks having their family, back in China, rounded up and sent to the camps.
A reminder: The digital surveillance state is built to be opaque. The platforms do not usher in “transparency,” as we’ve been told by Silicon Valley for years, but just the opposite. No human-rights work is allowed, no investigative journalism, no truth-telling. The state’s power is uncontested. Dissenters – and their families – are punished. Young and healthy dissenters can be punished twice, first by being sent to the camps, and then by being harvested.
Knowing all of this, Gutmann has cobbled together a set of tools and tactics for evading the surveillance state. First: limit the use of all digital tools. Drive an old-model car, built before surveillance technologies were embedded throughout. Navigate with paper maps and a compass. Record the interview on a Dictaphone, an analog tape recorder. Carry a Stalin bag as a Faraday cage. Wear Reflectacles to defend against facial recognition cameras. Use an analog Canon camera with black-and-white film. The digital tools he mentions are Tresorit for secure cloud storage, and Threema or Signal for messaging, both of which are listed in Good Reports: Best messaging apps.
But Gutmann emphasizes that there is no one app, platform, or tool, digital or analog, that can solve this problem. The rise of the digital surveillance state isn’t a “problem” that can be “solved” with some amazing new “disruption.” We have to abandon our illusions about tech. Instead, we’re better off educating ourselves on what’s happening in the world, to grasp the systemic change going on. “Read,” says Gutmann. I agree. Because the digital surveillance state is being built, right now, here in the US.
iPhone as driver’s license
The New York Times reported a few days ago that Apple has entered into a new partnership with the state of Arizona to allow the use of iPhones as a legal form of identification. Leave the (non-surveillable) driver’s license at home, and just make sure to keep the (surveillance-device) iPhone on your person – at all times.
From Arizona Offers Driver’s Licenses on iPhones. Other States Want to Be Next (March 26, 2022):
On Wednesday, Arizona became the first state to offer digital copies of driver’s licenses and state identification cards as part of a sweeping partnership with Apple that was announced last year. The project is expected to expand to Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico. The initiative has been promoted by the tech giant and the states for its convenience.
Notice the last word in that excerpt. Convenience. How long have we been told that these systems are “purely for our convenience,” and nothing to worry about? And it’s not just Arizona doing this. “Other states want to be next.”
The surveillance state is coming to your neighborhood, spouting happytalk about “convenience” and “transparency.” We’ll be told it’s just on an opt-in basis, for those forward-looking citizens who would like to take advantage of the future.
Soon enough, though, things will change. Today, iPhones are allowed to be used for identification. Tomorrow, iPhones will be required. But don’t worry, I’m sure some allowance will be made for Android. As long as you keep some surveillance device on your person at all times, you’ll be safe to travel, transact, go to school, and work in the US. Non-compliant citizens will have fewer and fewer options.
And smartphone requirements aren’t the endpoint. The surveillance state, much like the tech firms that power it, is devoted to endless growth. Which explains why China is looking into an untapped source of data. From Axios (March 29, 2022):
The Chinese government has identified genetic data as a national strategic resource and is strengthening state control over the country’s gene banks and other repositories of genetic information.
But it’s nothing to worry about. The US might follow China’s footsteps in nudging citizens to carry surveillance devices watched by the state... but surely they’ll stop there, and not move on to DNA surveillance. After all, our government is different. Our government would never use surveillance-state tools to monitor citizens, to chill human-rights work, and to stifle dissent.
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Until next time,
Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
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