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Map bug reveals notorious Xinjiang camps

Jason Norwood-Young
Jason Norwood-Young

China’s internment camps in the Xinjiang province now houses an estimated one million Uighurs and other minorities, arrested for crimes like growing a beard, praying, or downloading WhatsApp. While the rest of the world worries and seethes, China seems immune to eternal criticism. Activists are doing what they can from outside the borders, and one of the most powerful actions they can take is to collect evidence of the mounting human rights abuses.

A Buzzfeed investigation sponsored by the Open Technology Fund, the Pulitzer Center, and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, recently made a breakthrough in identifying the detention sites. They discovered a bug in China’s Baidu maps, that showed an anomaly when looking at sensitive sites at a specific zoom level, effectively highlighting the very thing they were meant to hide. “… at a certain point, plain light gray tiles would appear over the camp location. They disappeared as you zoomed in further, while the satellite imagery was replaced by the standard gray reference tiles, which showed features such as building outlines and roads.”

The investigators discovered no less than five million such tiles, since they also masked any area the Chinese deemed sensitive, from power plants to military bases. Through some filtering (the detention centres tend to be near built-up areas) and we assume a lot of hard work, they identified 428 locations. “Of these locations, we believe 315 are in use as part of the current internment program — 268 new camp or prison complexes, plus 47 pretrial administrative detention centers that have not been expanded over the past four years.”

Worryingly, the newly built detention centres are sporting thicker walls as opposed to barbed wire when the programme (or should we say pogrom) started, indicating that China is planning to keep these jails (or should we say concentration camps) open indefinitely.

Read about the investigation here.

Jason Norwood-Young
  • Journalist, developer, community builder, newsletter creator and international man of mystery.

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