- Chinese officials are reportedly forcing tourist visiting the Xinjiang region to install a malware app on their phones at the border, according to a joint report from Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, The New York Times, and NDR.
- The malware reportedly seizes all of the text messages on a phone and scans for a variety of files linked to Islam, ranging from extremist content to academic research and music.
- Officials in Xinjiang use invasive technology to monitor the Uighurs, a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority living in the region.
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Tourists entering China’s Xinjiang region are reportedly being forced to install an app that downloads all of their phone’s text messages, contacts, and calendar information and scans the device for files related to Islam.
According to a joint report from Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, The New York Times, and NDR, officials are using the data in their campaign to surveil the activities of a primarily-Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang called the Uighurs.
Xinjiang’s extensive use of surveillance technology to monitor the Uighur population has garnered international scrutiny. Citizens have been forced to install government surveillance apps and are subjected to facial-recognition cameras in public areas. About 8 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang and as many as one million Uighurs are confined to detention centers and re-education camps.
A tourist who crossed the border into Xinjiang provided a copy of the malware to Motherboard and Süddeutsche Zeitung, and a member of the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporting team had the same app installed on their phone when they entered Xinjiang. A team of analysts from Cure53, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, Ruhr University Bochum, and The Guardian helped deconstruct the app and determine how it works.
Human Rights Watch/YouTube
The app, called BXAQ or Feng Cai, collects all of the phone’s calendar entries, contacts, call logs, and texts and uploads them to a server. The app also conducts a search for files related to Islam, checking for more than 70,000 pre-determined files. While analysts couldn’t determine all of the files on the app’s watch list, the majority that were identified were Islamic extremist content. However, other files were linked to parts of the Quran, documents from the Dalai Lama, and even a pro-Taiwanese song from a Japanese metal band.
BXAQ is specifically designed to infiltrate Android phones, but a reporter from Süddeutsche Zeitung said they saw machines searching iPhones at the border as well.
The Uighurs have been subjected to this type of monitoring software for sometime and Chinese officials use it to catalogue sensitive information like political views, blood type, and even how much gas and electricity individual people use.
The Chinese government has justified this treatment of the Uighurs based on Islamophobia and has referred to the region’s re-education camps and detention centers as "free vocational training."
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