China putting secret surveillance apps on tourists' phones

The spyware extracts emails, texts and contacts and could be used to track movements

Chinese authorities are reportedly installing surveillance apps on tourists’ phones at certain border crossings that collect data and scan for a wide range of files. The finding is a result of a The New York Times, Vice's Motherboard, The Guardian, Suddeutsche Zeitung and the German broadcaster NDR's joint investigation into the methods used by China in its Xinjiang region, where the government has ramped up surveillance targeting its Uighur Muslim minority, forcing thousands into "reeducation" camps.

According to the Times’s report, border officials in certain crossings into Xinjiang install an app called Fengcai onto travelers’ Android devices. For travelers with Apple devices, their phones were reportedly plugged into a USB cable connected to a handheld device. Researchers told the outlets that the Android app scans for more than 73,000 different files. Many are related to Islamic extremist groups, including publications from ISIS and images of executions.But the list of files also includes segments from the Quran, portions of an Arabic dictionary and a photo of the Dalai Lama. For some reason, a song from a Japanese heavy metal band is also on the list.

The app also sweeps up text messages and contact information from the devices. Researchers told the outlets that the app appears to be the work of a Chinese telecom manufacturer that is partly owned by the government called FiberHome.

It is however unclear where all extracted information goes and for how long it is stored. Thus, Edin Omanovic, of the campaign group Privacy International, described to the Guardian the findings as “highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp”.

“This is yet another example of why the surveillance regime in Xinjiang is one of the most unlawful, pervasive and draconian in the world," Omanovic added.

“The Chinese government, both in law and practice, often conflates peaceful religious activities with terrorism,” Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Times. “You can see in Xinjiang, privacy is a gateway right: Once you lose your right to privacy, you’re going to be afraid of practicing your religion, speaking what’s on your mind or even thinking your thoughts.”

Similar articles