Back in 2017, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang began stopping members of the Uyghur ethnic minority and forcing them to install spyware on their phones: it marked an intensification of the country's crackdown on Uyghur's and other ethnic/religious minorities, which acquired a new technological fervor: next came the nonconsensual collection of the DNA of every person in Xinjiang, then the creation of torture camps designed to brainwash Uyghurs out of their Islamic faith, and then a full blown surveillance smart-city rollout that turned the cities of the region into open-air prisons.
Throughout the intensification of the racist war on Uyghurs, the cornerstone remained mobile surveillance, which fed data on every person's every action to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which also spied on police and government officials, enforcing legal harassment quotas. Though this app was sporadically installed on foreigners' phones, these seemed to be isolated incidents.
Now, though, the police in the region seem to have adopted a blanket policy of installing surveillance backdoors on the mobile devices of visitors to the region who use the Silk Road border crossing at Irkeshtam, whose phones have to be surrendered for an out-of-sight "inspection" at the borders to Xinjiang. There is no indication that these apps stop sending your personal information (including the contents of emails and texts) to Chinese authorities after you leave the region.
About 100 million people visit Xinjiang every year. As with other countries, Chinese authorities have a history of using disfavored minorities to try out digital persecution tools, finding the rough edges and normalizing the tools' use until they are ready to be used on more privileged groups, so Xinjiang can be seen as a field-trial for measures that will be visited upon the rest of China in due time — and also exported to Chinese Belt-and-Road client-states.
Analysis by the Guardian, academics and cybersecurity experts suggests the app, designed by a Chinese company,searches Android phones against a huge list of content that the authorities view as problematic.
This includes a variety of terms associated with Islamist extremism, including Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and various weapons operation manuals.
However, the surveillance app also searches for information on a range of other material – from fasting during Ramadan to literature by the Dalai Lama, and music by a Japanese metal band called Unholy Grave.
Another file on the list is a self-help manual by the American writer Robert Greene called The 33 Strategies of War.
Chinese border guards put secret surveillance app on tourists' phones [Hilary Osborne and Sam Cutler/The Guardian]