By Tenzin Sangmo
DHARAMSHALA, July 3: Chinese guards at remote Irkeshtam border in the westernmost part of Xinjiang are forcibly installing secret surveillance app on tourists’ phones that downloads personal information as part of the government’s intensive scrutiny of the remote Xinjiang region, revealed Guardian
and its international partners in the mission.
The Guardian investigation, with partners including Süddeutsche Zeitung
and the New York Times
, has found that travelers attempting to enter the region from neighboring Kyrgyzstan are being especially targeted.
According to Chinese authorities, there are about 100 million people visiting the Xinjiang region every year, including domestic and foreign tourists who mostly enter from elsewhere in the country.
The Irkeshtam crossing is used by traders and tourists, some following the historic Silk Route.
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.
The list includes terms associated with Islamist extremism, including Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and various weapons operation manuals.
Even 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 are not spared.
The report said there are several stages to crossing, and at one, travelers are made to unlock and hand over their phones and other devices such as cameras. The devices are then taken away to a separate room and returned sometime later.
The iPhones are plugged into a reader that scans them, while Android phones have the app installed to do the same job.
It seems that in most cases the app is uninstalled before the phone is returned, but some travelers have found it still on their phone.
The Guardian spoke to a traveler who had crossed the border to Xinjiang this year with an Android phone and was disturbed to see the app installed on his phone.
He said he had been asked to hand over his phone at the checkpoint, and it had been taken into a separate room. He and all the other travelers at that checkpoint had also been asked to hand their pin numbers to the officials and had waited about an hour to have their phones returned.
Maya Wange, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “We already know that Xinjiang residents, particularly Turkic Muslims–, are subjected to round-the-clock and multidimensional surveillance in the region.
The local residents are forced to download software that searches their phones, and the Chinese government has reportedly installed facial recognition cameras on streets and in mosques.
Police are also known to check for social media apps such as WhatsApp or Twitter. One man named Kasim, a Xinjiang native said: “If you (have) got Twitter or Facebook in your phone, you will be sentenced to 15 years in concentration camps.” Kasim told The Sun:
“China doesn’t want you to know what’s happening outside of China, so they’ve built a firewall.”
Edin Omanović, of the campaign group Privacy International, said the finding goes beyond that. “It suggests that even foreigners are subjected to such mass and unlawful surveillance.”