In a disturbing development, the Guardian reported that the Chinese border police are secretly installing surveillance apps on the phones of visitors and downloading their personal information as a part of the government’s intensive scrutiny of the remote Xinjiang region.
When travelers attempt to enter the Xinjiang region from the neighbouring Kyrgyzstan using the remote Irkeshtam border crossing, border guards make travelers unlock their phones, and take them and other devices such as cameras. They then secretly install an app that extracts emails, texts, contacts and calendar entries, along with information about the handset itself, the investigation by the Guardian, the New York Times and Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed.
What does the app do?
The app appears with the default Android icon and the words 蜂采 (Fēng cǎi); the term has no direct English translation, but relates to bees collecting honey. The app, that according to the Guardian has been designed by a Chinese company, ‘searches Android phones against a huge list of content that the authorities view as problematic’. iPhones are unlocked and then plugged into a reader that scans them.
The banned content is a list of more than 73,000 items stored within the app’s code, the New York Times reported. The list includes terms related to Islamist extremism, fasting during Ramadan, literature by the Dalai Lama, and music by a Japanese band. Analysis of the app by the Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ruhr-University Bochum and the German cybersecurity firm Cure53 suggested that it was designed to upload information such as emails on to a server at the border office.
The app is reportedly uninstalled before the phone is returned, but some travelers still found it on their phones. The Guardian reported that it was unclear where all the extracted information went, and for how long it was stored.
Muslims detained and watched in China
Xinjiang is the autonomous region in China where about 10 million Muslim Uighurs and a few other Muslim minorities, including the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz/Hui, live. In November 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council criticised China for mass detention of roughly million members of the Uighur community. The Chinese government, according to ‘credible reports’, had forced as many as two million Uighurs to submit to re-education and indoctrination in these internment camps. The Chinese government, on the other hand, had claimed that these camps are just vocational and training centres that combat extremism, and rehabilitate detainees.
In addition to this current surveillance of travelers to the region, the Chinese government tracks the movement of at least 2.5 million residents, mostly Muslim, in the region, the Guardian had earlier reported. They are tracked using CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition technology, and handheld devices equipped with cameras or ID scanners.
Use of surveillance apparatuses to persecute Uighur Muslims, dissidents and activists is such a prevalent and recognised threat in China that when Google employees protested against the search engine’s entry into China in November 2018, their letter specifically raised concerns about how Google’s search data could further empower China’s ‘surveillance powers and tools of population control’.
China continues to snoop on its citizens and others
Since Xi Jinping became the president of China in 2012, the Chinese government has heavily invested in technological upgrades to monitor and censor content. Transgressors of new laws on acceptable laws are severely punished. As a result, this kind of surveillance in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land a person in a detention camp is highly damning.
Fengcai isn’t the only app that snoops on mobile phone users. A French security researcher, who goes by the name Elliot Alderson on Twitter (NB: look up the TV Show Mr Robot for the pun), had analysed an Android application MFSocket last week. This app allows to police to extract SMS, MMS, videos, contacts, Telegram contacts from the victim’s phone.