Chinese authorities are reportedly installing surveillance and spying apps and software on smartphones carried by travellers entering the country. It is also believed that the border guards have made it mandatory for travellers to hand over their phones and the passcodes to unlock these devices, so that they can sift through the data. The investigation done by The Guardian, the New York Times and Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests that the app which is installed by the Chinese authorities extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as info about the device.
The investigation suggests this is part of the government’s intensive scrutiny of the remote Xinjiang region, and the surveillance is done on those attempt to enter from the Kyrgyzstan region.
“Border guards are taking their phones and secretly installing an app that extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself,” says the report in The Guardian. Tourists are also complaining that they were not warned in advance about the requirement to hand over their phones or the fact that a surveillance software was going to be installed.
Some Android phones have been returned to their owners with an app called Fēng cǎi installed on them. According to The Guardian, cybersecurity experts believe the app could be designed to search the phone for a list of content that the authorities could red flag. Incidentally, this app hasn’t been installed on any Apple iPhone devices, but travellers say that their iPhones are also taken away to a separate room—they could be plugged into a separate system and scanned for data.
Edin Omanović, of the campaign group Privacy International, has described the report 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. Modern extraction systems take advantage of this to build a detailed but flawed picture into people’s lives. Modern apps, platforms and devices generate huge amounts of data which people likely aren’t even aware of or believe they have deleted, but which can still be found on the device,” said Omanović.