Chinese border guards installing spyware on tourists’ smartphones

4 July 2019

| Author: Jay Jay

An alarming new report has revealed that Chinese border guards are forcibly installing a surveillance app on smartphones owned by tourists who are visiting the Xinjiang region which is home to Uighur Muslims who are suffering from intense persecution and surveillance by Chinese authorities.

According to Motherboard which collaborated with The Guardian, The New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung and German public broadcaster NDR, Chinese border guards posted at Irkeshtam port at the border between Kyrgyzstan and China are forcibly side-loading a surveillance app on devices owned by tourists who are entering the restive Xinjiang region.

Xinjiang has been in the news in the past few years because of an intense crackdown launched by Chinese law enforcement authorities on minority Uighur Muslims which has left the minority community isolated from the rest of the world and fighting for its rights.

The Uighur population is being constantly monitored by China using facial recognition software, smartphone tracking and other methods and hundreds and thousands of them have been forcibly shifted to “re-education camps” in order to deradicalize them. Uighurs are also prevented from wearing religious symbols, are not allowed to celebrate their festivals, are not allowed to sport long beards, and are prohibited from naming their children “Mohammed”.

“Open or even private displays of religious affiliation – including growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol – are categorized as “signs of extremism” in some locations.

“Any of these can land you in one of Xinjiang’s internment camps, which the government calls “transformation-through-education centres” and are reportedly arbitrarily detaining up to 1 million people,” says Amnesty International.

Chinese border guards are remotely tracking visitors to the Xinjiang region

Since the news of the Chinese crackdown spread to the rest of the world, a large number of human rights organisations as well as governments have been demanding China to release captive Uighurs and to respect their rights. China, on its part, has denied carrying out racial pogroms against Uighurs or restricting their rights.

Wary of the large-scale coverage of the crackdown on the Uighur population across the world, China is seemingly trying to identify tourists who are visiting the Xinjiang region in order to witness the crackdown on Uighurs and collect evidence against the government’s actions.

While China is not expressly preventing tourists from visiting Xinjiang, Motherboard reported that Chinese border guards are forcibly installing a surveillance app named BXAQ or Fengcai on smartphones owned by tourists who are entering the restive region through Irkeshtam port at the border between Kyrgyzstan and China.

After analysing the surveillance app, commonly known as spyware, Motherboard found that the app “uploads the device’s text messages, calendar entries, phone logs and contacts to a server” and scans devices for over 73,000 files that include PDFs related to the Dalai Lama, passages from the Quran, literature related to the Islamic State, and music from Unholy Grave, a Japanese music group that recently released a song titled “Taiwan: Another China.”

It added that Chinese border guards side-loaded the spyware onto tourists’ devices rather than downloading it from the Google Play Store. Following Motherboard’s revelation, popular antivirus apps and security apps offered by cyber security firms such as Check Point, Malwarebytes, and Symantec have started flagging the surveillance app as malware, thereby allowing those visiting Xinjiang in the future to prevent Chinese border guards from installing spyware on their devices.

However, if the guards have physical possession over a device while side-loading the app, they will be able to overwrite any malware or potentially-dangerous software alerts.

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