China Installs Secret App to Travelers’ Phones to Monitor For ‘Objectionable Material’
The application is the Chinese government’s latest escalation of its surveillance operation of Uighurs, a Muslim minority, for supposed terrorist activity.
- By Haley Samsel
- Jul 08, 2019
China continues to escalate its use of surveillance technology to monitor the activities of both its citizens and visitors, this time installing a secret app to the smartphones of people entering the western region of Xinjiang.
A New York Times investigation reveals a previously unreported policing app used by Chinese authorities in a region that is home to the country’s Uighur population, a Turkish ethnic group that is largely Muslim. The Chinese government has confined hundreds of thousands of Uighurs to re-education camps and oversees an all-encompassing video surveillance system that uses facial recognition technology to instill fear in residents.
The app appears to be an extension of Chinese efforts to surveil anyone who enters the region. When travelers cross the border into Xinjiang, they must turn over their devices to security officials. The authorities then install the app, which gathers personal data from the phone, including text messages, contacts, pictures, videos, documents and audio files.
From there, the app compares that data to a list of more than 73,000 items of objectionable material contained on a list within the app’s code, according to the Times. Most of those items are related to Islamist terrorism, including recordings of jihadi anthems and Islamic State publications.
But the list also includes things that have no relation to terrorism, including pages from an Arabic dictionary, recorded recitations of Quaran verses, and more, according to the Times.
“The Chinese government, both in law and practice, often conflates peaceful religious activities with terrorism,” Maya Wang, a China researcher for 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.”
All of the information taken from the device is sent to a server, though it is still not clear what the government does with the collected data, the Times report said. The newspaper also could not determine if anyone had been detained or monitored because of information collected by the app.
One piece of good news: The app does not appear to continue scanning the device in the background if it remains installed on a device. But security and human rights experts say there is plenty of reason to worry that the technology could be deployed throughout China. Xinjiang is known as a “laboratory for the authorities’ experiments in high-tech surveillance,” writes Vox tech writer Sigal Samuel.
“The new revelation that China is installing an app on tourists’ phones to hoover up personal data represents a disturbing escalation,” Samuel writes. “It shows that China is becoming increasingly brazen about whom it targets, and how. The surveillance state is spreading.”