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Blanked-Out Spots On China’s Maps Hide Muslim Incarceration Camps

Blanked-Out Spots On China’s Maps Helped Us Uncover Xinjiang’s Camps

China’s Baidu blanked out parts of its mapping platform. We used those locations to find a network of buildings bearing the hallmarks of prisons and internment camps in Xinjiang. Here’s how we did it.

Posted on August 27, 2020, at 6:01 a.m. ET

Baidu / Via


A masked tile on Baidu Maps.


Read Part 1 of this investigation here. Read Part 2 here.

This project was supported by the Open Technology Fund, the Pulitzer Center, and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.

In the summer of 2018, as it became even harder for journalists to work effectively in Xinjiang, a far-western region of China, we started to look at how we could use satellite imagery to investigate the camps where Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were being detained. At the time we began, it was believed that there were around 1,200 camps in existence, while only several dozen had been found. We wanted to try to find the rest.

Our breakthrough came when we noticed that there was some sort of issue with satellite imagery tiles loading in the vicinity of one of the known camps while using the Chinese mapping platform Baidu Maps. The satellite imagery was old, but otherwise fine when zoomed out — but 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.

At that time, Baidu only had satellite imagery at medium resolution in most parts of Xinjiang, which would be replaced by their general reference map tiles when you zoomed in closer. That wasn’t what was happening here — these light gray tiles at the camp location were a different color than the reference map tiles and lacked any drawn information, such as roads. We also knew that this wasn’t a failure to load tiles, or information that was missing from the map. Usually when a map platform can’t display a tile, it serves a standard blank tile, which is watermarked. These blank tiles are also a darker color than the tiles we had noticed over the camps.

Once we found that we could replicate the blank tile phenomenon reliably, we started to look at other camps whose locations were already known to the public to see if we could observe the same thing happening there. Spoiler: We could. Of the six camps that we used in our feasibility study, five had blank tiles at their location at zoom level 18 in Baidu, appearing only at this zoom level and disappearing as you zoomed in further. One of the six camps didn’t have the blank tiles — a person who had visited the site in 2019 said it had closed, which could well have explained it. However, we later found that the blank tiles weren’t used in city centers, only toward the edge of cities and in more rural areas. (Baidu did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Having established that we could probably find internment camps in this way, we examined Baidu’s satellite tiles for the whole of Xinjiang, including the blank masking tiles, which formed a separate layer on the map. We analyzed the masked locations by comparing them to up-to-date imagery from Google Earth, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Hub, and Planet Labs.

In total there were 5 million masked tiles across Xinjiang. They seemed to cover any area of even the slightest strategic importance — military bases and training grounds, prisons, power plants, but also mines and some commercial and industrial facilities. There were far too many locations for us to sort through, so we narrowed it down by focusing on the areas around cities and towns and major roads.

Prisons and internment camps need to be near infrastructure — you need to get large amounts of building materials and heavy machinery there to build them, for starters. Chinese authorities would have also needed good roads and railways to bring newly detained people there by the thousand, as they did in the early months of the mass internment campaign. Analyzing locations near major infrastructure was therefore a good way to focus our initial search. This left us with around 50,000 locations to look at.

We began to sort through the mask tile locations systematically using a custom web tool that we built to support our investigation and help manage the data. We analyzed the whole of Kashgar prefecture, the Uighur heartland, which is in the south of Xinjiang, as well as parts of the neighboring prefecture, Kizilsu, in this way. After looking at 10,000 mask tile locations and identifying a number of facilities bearing the hallmarks of detention centers, prisons, and camps, we had a good idea of the range of designs of these facilities and also the sorts of locations in which they were likely to be found.

We quickly began to notice how large many of these places are — and how heavily securitized they appear to be, compared to the earlier known camps. In site layout, architecture, and security features, they bear greater resemblance to other prisons across China than to the converted schools and hospitals that formed the earlier camps in Xinjiang. The newer compounds are also built to last, in a way that the earlier conversions weren’t. The perimeter walls are made of thick concrete, for example, which takes much longer to build and perhaps later demolish, than the barbed wire fencing that characterizes the early camps.

In almost every county, we found buildings bearing the hallmarks of detention centers, plus new facilities with the characteristics of large, high-security camps and/or prisons. Typically, there would be an older detention center in the middle of the town, while on the outskirts there would be a new camp and prison, often in recently developed industrial areas. Where we hadn’t yet found these facilities in a given county, this pattern pushed us to keep on looking, especially in areas where there was no recent satellite imagery. Where there was no public high-resolution imagery, we used medium-resolution imagery from Planet Labs and Sentinel to locate likely sites. Planet was then kind enough to give us access to high-resolution imagery for these locations and to task a satellite to capture new imagery of some areas that hadn’t been photographed in high resolution since 2006. In one county, this allowed us to see that the detention center that had previously been identified by other researchers had been demolished and to find the new prison just out of town.


This is Yiwu, Hami prefecture in Google Earth, in the most recent publicly available high-resolution imagery. The photo was taken in 2006. The white marker shows the old, now-demolished prison and the red marker shows the new one on the outskirts.

Google Earth



Here is a close-up of the location where the new prison would eventually be built.

Google Earth


Planet Labs took a new satellite image in 2020, showing the fully built facility.

Planet Labs


Prison requirements — why prisons are built where they are

There’s good reason why these places are developed close to towns. There’s the occasional camp in a more remote location, such as the sprawling internment camp in Dabancheng, but even there it’s next to a major road, with a small town nearby. Having the prison or camp close to an existing town minimizes, in principle, the distance that detainees must be transported (although there are also examples of prisoners and detainees being taken right across Xinjiang, from Kashgar to Korla, as in the drone video that reemerged recently, according to analysts). It is easier for families to visit loved ones who are in custody. Being near a town means that a prison or camp can be staffed more easily. Guards have families, their children need to go to school, their partners have jobs, they need access to healthcare, etc. Construction workers are needed to build the prison in the first place. It is also useful for amenities. Prisons and camps need electricity, water, telephone lines. It is way cheaper and easier to connect to an existing nearby network than to run new pipes and cables tens of kilometers to a more remote location.


Finally, you need a large plot of land for a prison, preferably with space to expand in the future, and this is what the recently developed industrial estates offer: large, serviced plots, close to existing towns and cities. Building in industrial estates also places the camps close to factories for forced labor. While many camps have factories within their compounds, in several cases that we know of detainees are bused to other factory sites to work.

Our list of sites

In total we identified 428 locations in Xinjiang bearing the hallmarks of prisons and detention centers. Many of these locations contain two to three detention facilities — a camp, pretrial administrative detention center, or prison. We intend to analyze these locations further and make our database more granular over the next few months.

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. We have witness testimony showing that these detention centers have frequently been used to detain people, who are often then moved on to other camps, and so we feel it is important to include them. Excluded from this 315 are 39 camps that we believe are probably closed and 11 that have closed — either they’ve been demolished or we have witness testimony that they are no longer in use. There are a further 14 locations identified by other researchers, but where our team has only been able to check the satellite evidence, which in these cases is weak. These 14 are not included in our list.


We have also located 63 prisons that we believe belong to earlier, pre-2016 programs. These facilities were typically built several years — in some cases, several decades — before the current internment program and have not been significantly extended since 2016. They are also different in style from the detention centers, known in Chinese as “kanshousuo,” and also from the newer camps. These facilities are not part of the 315 we believe to be in use as part of the current internment program and are included separately in our database.

Many of the earlier camps, which were converted from other uses, had their courtyard fencing, watchtowers, and other security features removed, often in late 2018 or early 2019. In some cases, the removal of most barricading, plus the fact that there are often cars parked in several places across the compounds, suggests that they’re no longer camps and are classified as probably closed in our database. The removal of the security features, in several cases, coincided with the opening of a larger, higher-security facility being completed nearby, suggesting that detainees may have been moved to the newer location.

Where facilities were purpose-built as camps and have had courtyard fencing removed but otherwise don’t show any change of use (like cars in the compound), we think they’re likely to still be camps — albeit with lower levels of security.


Our work has also built on the work of others, Shawn Zhang, Adrian Zenz, Bitter Winter, Gene Bunin, ETNAM, Open Street Map contributors, and the Laogai Handbook — we have sought to verify all of the locations in these databases (and attempted to locate the camps in the case of the Laogai Handbook), added them to our database where relevant, and classified them. The work of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), especially Nathan Ruser and his advice at an early stage of this project, was also invaluable. We would also like to note the contribution of the interpreters who worked with us. For security reasons, we aren’t sharing names or other identifying details, but would like nevertheless to publicly extend our thanks — you know who you are.

Alison Killing conducted this reporting with a grant and further assistance from the Open Technology Fund.

Revolutionary nano-diamond batteries last for ever

Interview: The NDB team on its revolutionary nano-diamond batteries

Nano diamond batteries: each one generates its own power for decades, even millennia, using recycled nuclear waste safely packaged in crash-proof, tamper-proof diamond
Nano diamond batteries: each one generates its own power for decades, even millennia, using recycled nuclear waste safely packaged in crash-proof, tamper-proof diamond


A cheap, safe, self-charging battery that delivers high power for decades without ever needing a charge? That’s a game changer. California-based company NDB is making some outrageous promises with its nano-diamond battery technology, which could completely disrupt the energy generation, distribution and provision models if deployed at scale.

Each of these batteries, which can be built to fit any existing standard or shape, uses a small amount of recycled nuclear waste, reformed into a radioactive diamond structure and coated in non-radioactive lab diamonds for safety.


We explained the technology in detail in our original NDB nano-diamond battery breakdown, but we also had the opportunity to speak with members of the NDB executive team. CEO Dr. Nima Golsharifi, COO Dr. Mohammed Irfan and Chief Strategy Officer Neel Naicker joined us on a Zoom call to talk about the technology and its potential for disruptive change.

What follows is an edited transcript.

Dr Nima Golsharifi: Our battery is based on the beta decay and alpha decay of radioisotopes. The technology we have encapsulates this radioisotope in a very safe manner, which allows it to be used in basically any application that current batteries are being used for.

Loz: The particular type of carbon that you’re using, where do you get that?

Nima: Basically we’re using a range of different isotopes, not just one particular one, but access to these are through different methods. We have some partners in collaboration at the moment that can provide us with them.

But they’re basically taken from nuclear waste. So we can recycle them and use the raw materials for our application. But we can also synthesize it in large scale in our facility. So both are possibilities.

Loz: OK. So what part of a nuclear reactor creates this waste? What’s it doing before it becomes waste?

Nima: Basically, some parts of the nuclear reactor, like the moderator and the refractor, are being exposed to radiation from the fuel rods. Over time they become radioactive themselves. That’s the part that they have to store as nuclear waste.

So this part could be taken away, and through some process, either gasification or some other processes we’ve designed, we can convert that into a useful raw material for our batteries.

Sheikh Mohammed Irfan: Dr. Nima, maybe you can also talk about how big of a waste problem that is for the nuclear industry currently.

Nima: Sure. At the moment, their expenditure is more than a hundred million dollars every year. Nuclear waste is a very large issue across the world. And beside this, there’s basically no other way to re-use it in a safe solution.

So what we’re doing covers two challenges in one. Converting nuclear waste into a battery that generates power in a very safe manner. Once this battery is used – and it can have a very long life span – it becomes a very safe byproduct that’s of no harm to the environment.

Loz: Right. So I saw a number somewhere that these batteries can last for 28,000 years.

Nima: Let me correct that. It depends on the type of radioisotope you’re using, and for every application the lifetime is different. But what we can say is that the battery would operate for the lifetime of the application itself, for sure. For some applications, much higher. So if you’re talking about electric vehicles, our battery could run for around 90 years without the requirement of recharging.

When it comes to something like consumer electronics, it’d be more like 9 years. In some small sensor applications, it can go for up to 28,000 years.

The heart of the nano diamond battery is carbon-14's decay into nitrogen, an anti-neutrino and an electron
The heart of the nano diamond battery is carbon-14’s decay into nitrogen, an anti-neutrino and an electron

Loz: I understand. So what sort of quantities of this waste are there around the world? Is this super common stuff, or is it reasonably finite?

Nima: Basically we’re covering two different kinds of nuclear waste. One is intermediate, and the other is high level. So there will be a time where we have recycled the entire amount of nuclear waste, and we’ll need new solutions for the raw material. But as I mentioned, we’ll be able to produce this raw material through other methods, including transmutation.

That’s a process that’s currently being used, and not something we’ve invented ourselves. It was invented by MIT, and it involves a centrifuge to separate out the isotopes. The main ingredient is nitrogen, which is the major component of air, so it’s a very cheap solution.

Loz: So you’ve got your nuclear waste, it’s obviously dangerous for humans. How does it become safe to be used in a battery?

Nima: Basically, we can generate a high amount of cover from the radioactive substance. We’re using a combination of technologies within our structure that can make it very safe to users. Mainly it comes down to the fact that we’re using diamond structures.

Diamond itself has different interesting properties. It’s one of the best heat sinks available at the moment, for example. That on its own covers thermal safety. When it comes to mechanical safety, diamond is one of the strongest materials in the world. 11.5 times stronger than steel. So again, that itself makes the battery tamper-proof and safe.

In addition to that, we have a combination of other technologies, including the implantation of the radioisotopes within the diamond structure, which stops the spread of the radioisotopes even if the structure is broken down – which is kind of impossible without access to specific tools like lasers and others.

So in general I can say it’s a combination of technologies that we’ve either innovated or invented that create a very safe structure as a battery.

Irfan: I’d like to add to that, that using radioisotopes as a source for energy is not new. We have nuclear medicine, where patients are treated with controlled equipment, which has always given effective results. Similarly, we have had nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Of course, that’s a completely different process, but it’s been able to successfully and safely deliver power and energy without safety issues.

What Dr. Nima has highlighted is that the choice of diamond as a material is one of the strongest natural materials, and it acts as a powerful shielding and protection mechanism.

Loz: Right. Can you describe how the energy is extracted and harnessed?

Nima: Maybe I can give an example that could help you understand. Let’s go to solar cells, everyone’s familiar with those. These convert the energy from light radiation into electricity in photovoltaic cells.

In our case, we’re converting the radiation from alpha/beta decay – alpha and beta radiation – directly into electricity. And the mechanism we’re using is simple crystalline diamond. As I mentioned before, we have another layer, which is fully crystalline diamond, creating extra shielding and safety for this structure.

Neel Naicker: What Nima’s describing is how the radioactivity produced by the body is actually more than what you get from these batteries. They’re quite safe.

Loz: So in terms of evaluating batteries for use in cars, eVTOLs and things like that, the main metrics seem to be energy density, power density, safety in a crash, that sort of thing. Do you know what sort of figures you’re looking at with these batteries?

Nima: When it comes to energy density, the energy density of a basic radioisotope is far beyond anything else on the market.

When it comes to power density, the solution we have will give a higher level. But compared to the way that energy density is higher, power density is not that much higher. But it’s still significantly better than other batteries in the market.

And as far as crashes, no crash could break down our structure at all. Because you’re using the diamond, and the specific mechanisms that make it stronger. The only way to get through the structure we have is the use of specific tools and lasers, which are quite expensive.

Neel: Another way to look at this is to think of it in an iPhone. With the same size battery, it would charge your battery from zero to full, five times an hour. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you wouldn’t have to charge your battery at all for the day. Now imagine for the week, for the month… How about for decades? That’s what we’re able to do with this technology.

Loz: It would strike at the heart of the disposable model the phone companies tend to use.

Neel: You’ve hit the nail on the head there. A couple of things. One is the ability for us to power things at scale. We can start at the nanoscale and go up to power satellites, locomotives… Imagine that.

Secondly, we’re taking something that’s a big negative – radioactive waste, very dangerous – and turning it into something productive that provides electricity.

The third thing is that we wanna use this technology to get low-cost electricity to places that need it. We’ve now disrupted the whole mechanism of the creation and storage of power. There’s a lot of infrastructure needed before you can flip a light switch and a light comes on.

But with what we’ve created, you don’t need that infrastructure. You could put one of these batteries in a home, and boom, you’ve eliminated the whole infrastructure. Imagine the disruption that’s gonna cause, for good or for bad. It’ll upset a few people.

We’ve taken something that’s really harmful to the environment, a problem, and created energy. And for places that don’t have the electrical infrastructure in place, we want to provide that at a very low cost.

Here shown as a small, circuit board mounted design, the nano diamond battery has the potential to totally upend the energy equation since it never needs charging and lasts many, many years
Here shown as a small, circuit board mounted design, the nano diamond battery has the potential to totally upend the energy equation since it never needs charging and lasts many, many years

Loz: Let’s talk about cost a little. Obviously lithium batteries cost a lot, they’re a primary component of the cost of electric vehicles. Do you guys have a sense for what these things could cost in a commercial environment?

Nima: Yes, we’ve done financial modelling around this. A lot of applications have been considered. What we can say is it’ll depend on the application, but it should be at a good competition level with current lithium-ion batteries.

In some cases, you’re a little bit higher in price for production, and in others, when it goes to scale, we’re a cheaper solution. Let me give you an example. Take the battery for a Tesla car, it costs somewhere in the region of US$9-10K. Our battery will cost something in the region of US$7-8K. But it’s different in different applications.

Loz: So, cheaper and it never needs charging, and it lasts for vastly longer than any lithium cell.

Irfan: Not only is it a few thousand cheaper for the battery pack, but ours recharges itself. So on a Tesla, you need to recharge, stop, over time the battery wears itself out. Ours lasts for a long time.

We’ll probably have them available under some sort of subscription model, pay as you go, but it’ll be substantially cheaper than what the mechanism is today for a Tesla car.

Loz: Extraordinary. How far along is this technology? How far are we off mass production? Where are you at with prototyping and testing?

Nima: We’re in the prototyping stage at the moment. We’ve completed the proof of concept, and we’re about to start the commercial prototype. However, the pandemic has happened, and the lab has been shut down for some time.

But basically once the laboratories are open, we do require around 6-9 months to complete our commercial prototype, and following that to go through the regulatory process, to bring the first few applications for the battery into the market in less than two years’ time.

Loz: So it’s not far off.

Neel: Just to give you an example, we’ll take Google, which has data centers all across the world. Amazon, Facebook, all of these companies. In confidential conversations we’ve had with some of these parties, we’ve spoken about how they use and dispose of more Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) than anyone on the planet. Google always has to be on. And those UPS units have a use by date, they have to discard them.

Our product will be able to support that, while reducing the carbon footprint, and lasting far, far longer. That’s a game changer when you consider how big an operation something like AWS is. It’ll be a huge product for that.

A secondary product will be for the satellite market, where there’ll be no regard for whether it’s radioactive or not. Low-power satellites, we’ll be able to power those for a long, long time without having any regard to whether they’re facing the Sun, or getting any Sun on their solar panels, or whatever.

It changes the whole dynamic. Not only have we disrupted the whole energy infrastructure for creating and delivering power, we can also make big changes to the business model for a lot of companies. Big concerns can just become negligible.

This will change a lot of industries. In the future, we could look at using these to power nanorobots moving inside the body. It works from the nanoscale up to large scale. We think it’ll be very impressive.

Loz: So the limits on this technology will be what, availability of the raw materials? Regulations? Do you see any regulatory barriers?

Irfan: It’s a good question. We’ve done a comprehensive study on the regulatory and compliance aspects of our technology. Fortunately there are other devices already on the market that use radioisotopes and radioactive material inside them. Some are in the medical industry, like pacemakers. There are already different types of regulations in place.

So the matter here would be our design complying to those regulations, and we’ve been doing that over time.

Neel: In your home, you’ll have smoke detectors, right? All of those have the same radioactivity as well. That’s one point.

When it comes to availability, there’s enough raw materials out there that we can develop for a long time. That’s not the issue. Also, on the regulatory side there are some markets we can go into immediately without any concerns there. Aerospace, military, many others where there aren’t the same requirements for compliance.

For a car, it may be different. For a hearing aid, it may be different, or a consumer product. But there are some applications where it won’t be a problem at all.

Loz: Right. This is perhaps a bit of a crass question to ask, but do you guys have to pay for this nuclear waste, or are people paying you to take it away?

Irfan: (Laughs) I’m glad you brought that up! We’ve got a few places that have offered to pay us to take it away. It’s a nuisance for them. They have to store it, and you can imagine the regulations around that. In many cases, they have to keep the public a certain distance away. They’ll actually pay us to take this stuff away.

So it’s a secondary opportunity for us from a revenue standpoint, and we’ve discussed this with several partners.

Loz: What a wonderful business to be in, where you’re paid to take your own raw materials.

Neel. I wanna drive one thing home. If you take a look at the map of energy use in the world, and the map of wealth in the world, they’re very similar. One thing we’re trying to do with our application is trying to get some of these devices out to places where kids don’t have electricity to do their homework, or to power clean water technology.

We’re very adamant that this be a component of our business. And while we can’t mention too many names, we’ve spoken with several big partners who would support this effort. Some of these companies feel they need to do good in the world, and providing electricity to places across the world that don’t have it is a great opportunity for them.

Again, they don’t have the huge infrastructure in place. But we don’t need the infrastructure. We don’t need power stations, or power lines, or any of that, to provide power. We’re adamant as a team that we will give back in a major way that today’s infrastructure won’t allow.

Loz: In terms of the IP around this, how much do you guys own, and how much competition do you expect?

Irfan: Right now, we have patents pending around our technology. I think we’re quite ahead of the competition that exists in the market, we started much earlier than the others and our technology is more advanced.

We thank the NDB team members for their time and look forward to learning more as development progresses.

Source: NDB