China is forcing tourists crossing Xinjiang borders to install an Android app that sends personal information to authorities, reports the Vice News

6 min read

Yesterday, the Vice News, in an investigative piece reported that China is forcing tourists who cross certain borders into Xinjiang, a western region of China to install an Android app that shares their personal information with the authorities. This news comes after in April it was reported that China is forcing residents of Xinjiang to install a similar Android app. 

Since 2016, China has been conducting mass surveillance on the 13 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, up to one million people are being held in “political education” camps. The residents have been subject to mass arbitrary detention, restrictions on movement, and religious oppression. All this is happening under the Chinese government’s Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.

China is taking mass surveillance to the next level by installing the surveilling Android app on tourists’ phones. Tourists crossing the border are taken to a clean, sterile environment to get searched. They have to go through several stages of scrutiny and security that takes around half a day. Their phones are seized and the malware called BXAQ or Fengcai is installed. 

What the analysis of BXAQ, the Android malware, revealed

The Vice News, Guardian, and New York Times teamed up to commission several technical analyses on the app to understand its inner workings. Cybersecurity firm Cure53, researchers from CitizenLab and Ruhr University Bochum also analyzed the code that included names like “CellHunter” and “MobileHunter.” The Vice News shared a copy of the malware installed in their tourists’ phones with Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German news publishing company and Motherboard, which is available on the Motherboard’s GitHub account.

Unlike normal apps that we install via app stores, this app is installed by sideloading. Once installed, it collects information like phone’s calendar entries, phone contacts, call logs, and text messages. The app goes as far as scanning all the apps installed on the subject’s phone and extracts usernames from some of them. All this collected data goes to a server, according to expert analysis. People with iPhones were also not spared from the scrutiny. Their iPhones were unlocked and connected via a USB cable to a hand-held device. 

The app’s code also has hashes for over 73,000 different files that the malware scans for.  The team and researchers who were analyzing the app managed to uncover the inputs of around 1,300 of them by searching for connected files on VirusTotal, a file search engine. 

Many of the files that the malware scans contain extremist content. However, it also scans for parts of the innocuous Islamic material, academic books on Islam by leading researchers, and even a music file from Japanese metal band Unholy Grave.

The report revealed that one of the scanned files was The Syrian Jihad, written by Charles Lister, who is a senior fellow and director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism program at the Middle East Institute. 

When the Vice News told this to the writer he was surprised, to say the least. He wrote in an email, “This is news to me! I’ve never had any criticism for the book—in fact, in all honesty, the opposite. Instead, I suspect China’s authorities would find anything with the word ‘jihad’ in the title to be potentially suspicious. The book covers, albeit minimally, the role of Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, which may also be a point of sensitivity for Beijing. I’ve met with and engaged with Chinese officials to brief them on these issues, so I’m not aware of any problem Beijing would have with me.

What Human Rights Defenders and other governments are saying about China’s domestic surveillance

China has been widely criticized for its dystopian digital dictatorship. Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told the Vice News that the Chinese government often relates harmless religious activities with terrorism. She said, “The Chinese government, both in law and practice, often conflates peaceful religious activities with terrorism. Chinese law defines terrorism and extremism in a very broad and vague manner. For example, terrorism charges can stem from mere possession of ‘items that advocate terrorism,’ even though there is no clear definition of what these materials may be.

This extreme use of cutting edge technologies for social control has also raised concern among other governments. On Tuesday, the United States and Germany condemned China during a closed-door United Nations Security Council meeting. 

A U.S. State Department official told the Reuters, “The United States is alarmed by China’s highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in Xinjiang, and efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate.”

The Chinese officials in the meeting responded that this matter is purely internal and U.S. and Germany are making “unwarranted criticism”. China’s U.N. Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu said that the United States and Germany do not have any right to raise the issue in the Security Council. When asked about the state-run detention camp, Xinjiang vice-governor Erkin Tuniyaz said they are just vocational centers that are built to “save” people from extremist influences.

What role tech plays in enabling such dystopia

China has stepped up surveillance in every part of the country, and the extreme case is in Xinjiang. These steps, it says are taken to counter security threats and religious extremism. What has changed over the years is that these surveillance measures have become smarter.

Today, Xinjiang has a massive security presence along with millions of surveillance technologies tracking every move you make. The technologies like facial-recognition cameras, iris and body scanners at checkpoints, mandatory apps like the one we discussed earlier that monitor messages and data flow on Uyghurs’ smartphones are everywhere.

Tech giants including Alibaba Group, Huawei are working with the government to come up with such systems. The data from the surveillance systems matched with your personal data determine your “social credit score”. This social credit system is a way of monitoring the citizens’ behavior to determine their rank in society. According to the Chinese government, it aims to reinforce the idea, “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.” If your score is high your life is convenient, if not you will have limited options for traveling, schooling, and other basic needs. 

Not only China, but other countries are also stepping towards mass surveilling its citizens. For instance, the Trump administration is forcing its tourists to give away a list of all their social media accounts and all their email accounts. 

Read the investigate piece by the Vice News to know more in detail.

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