Chinese border guards installing spyware on tourists’ phones

App extracts information and searches for material as visitors enter ‘police state’ Xinjiang

Children play in the street in China’s Xinjiang region, one of the most policed places in the world
(Image credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Border police in China are secretly installing surveillance apps on the phones of visitors and downloading personal information, according to a joint investigation by news organisations.

They says the apps are being installed at the borders of the western Xinjiang region, where authorities are accused of setting up internment camps, as part of a huge surveillance campaign against Uighur Muslims.

The Guardian says the practice is “part of the government’s intensive scrutiny of the remote Xinjiang region”, an area that The New York Times describes as a “police state with few modern parallels”.

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CNN says that if the reports are verified “it would be the latest move to tighten surveillance in the heavily repressed region”, while Vice adds that it “shows that the Chinese government’s aggressive style of policing and surveillance in the Xinjiang region has extended to foreigners, too”.

What is going on?

The joint investigation by The Guardian, German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung and the New York Times discovered that travellers are being targeted when they attempt to enter the region from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Border guards take their phones and secretly install an app that extracts information including emails, texts and contacts. Visitors say they have not been warned by authorities in advance and some have found the app still on their phone afterwards.

The malware searches for files including material from Islamic State, jihadi music and images of executions, as well as more moderate Islamic content, photographs of the Dalai Lama and even songs by a Japanese metal band called Unholy Grave.

Speaking to the New York Times, Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “The Chinese government, both in law and practice, often conflates peaceful religious activities with terrorism.”

What is happening in Xinjiang?

Claims that there are internment camps in the region has been denied by Beijing, but human rights groups continue to insist the allegation is true.

Last year, Amnesty International described an “intensifying government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region's Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups”.

The latest investigation into spyware for tourists has been described by the campaign group Privacy International, as “highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp”.

Human Rights Watch echoed the concerns, telling The Guardian: “We already know that Xinjiang residents, particularly Turkic Muslims, are subjected to round-the-clock and multidimensional surveillance in the region.

“What you have found goes beyond that. It suggests that even foreigners are subjected to such mass and unlawful surveillance.”

Washington has condemned China for the crackdown in Xinjiang, but Beijing officials defend it as a non-lethal way of fighting terrorism. Chinese authorities are yet to respond to the latest allegations.

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