The mass surveillance operation is set to minimize the risks of diffusing sensitive information to the outside world.
Rabat – China’s concerns over the world knowing more about the ongoing plight of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region have led Beijing to take security measures which include secretly spying on tourists’ phones while in Xinjiang, a joint investigation by the Guardian and partners has established.
In an article published on July 2, the British newspaper explains in excruciating detail how Beijing is going about surveilling foreigners who enter its Xinjiang region to significantly curb the risk of having information about the harsh treatment of the region’s Muslims reach the outside world.
“Chinese border police are secretly installing surveillance apps on the phones of visitors and downloading personal information as part of the government’s intensive scrutiny of the remote Xinjiang region,” the Guardian wrote. It added that only foreign travelers who “attempt to enter the region from neighboring Kyrgyzstan” have so far been the target of what looks like a chilling instance of “Big Brother is watching you.”
At the security checkpoints at the border, Chinese border guards reportedly request that travelers hand in their phones. They then secretly install “an app that extracts emails, texts, and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself.”
While tourists have acknowledged that travel agencies had warned them of the existence of such an extra-security operation, they complain that they did not know its purpose, nor did border guards tell them the reasons their cell phones being screened. Travelers are left in the dark during the entire process.
According to the Guardian, however, in-depth analysis of the type of contents the app looks for has established that Beijing is singularly interested in anything that may be remotely linked with China’s widely reported mistreatment of its Muslim minority.
Once installed on a phone, the surveillance app searches for contents Beijing deems “problematic.” The Guardian details that the “problematic” list 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.”
Of significance to Chinese authorities is information relating to “fasting during Ramadan.”
While the app is said to be uninstalled at the border at the end of the tourists’ stay in Xinjiang, some travelers have said that the app remained on their phones. This has raised eye-brows about whether the spying continues beyond some tourists’ stay in the controversy-soaked region.
Edin Omanovic of Privacy International, an international campaign group advocating for the inviolability of individual’s privacy, said the findings of the joint investigations were “highly alarming.”
He said the danger of having the app installed on one’s cell phone was even more acute “in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp.” Omanovic added, “This is yet another example of why the surveillance regime in Xinjiang is one of the most unlawful, pervasive and draconian in the world.”
Surveillance beyond China
Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch China, echoed similar concerns. What the world already knew that Uighurs are constantly subject to China’s pervasive surveillance system, Wang explained, “What you have found goes beyond that.”
One unnamed traveler, who reportedly went through a series of security checks at the border with Kyrgyzstan, fumed at the measure. “I don’t like it. If they were doing it in my home country I would be aghast, but when you are traveling to China you know it might be like this,” the traveler said.
While Beijing has not yet responded to the allegations, it is highly likely that when they do, it will be to scoff at the findings.
Previously, China dismissed the worldwide outcry about Uighurs’ predicament, saying that it was necessary to keep them in “re-education camps” to make them more accommodating of Chinese and Marxist values.
China has also defended its use of the surveillance app in the Xinjiang, arguing that the app has “improved security” in the region.
Meanwhile, far beyond its borders, Beijing has faced similar complaints of secretly installing surveillance devices to spy on both governments and individuals.
While the US and other Western countries have accused Beijing of hacking into their sensitive databases, the most incriminating report to date came from Africa, a continent where China has largely prevailed on the US as a trade and investment partner.
In January 2018, France’s Le Monde newspaper reported that China, which helped build the current African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, had installed listening devices in offices and hacking materials on computers to have unlimited access to African leaders’ private discussions and agreements on the most burning issues facing the continent.
Although the report has been dismissed by both Beijing and AU operatives, the episode sounded an alarm bell on China’s real motives in its increasing focus on Africa. In a trollishly-headlined article, “Beijing’s Big Brother Tech Needs African Faces,” Foreign Policy later reported how China has won the unadulterated esteem of African dictators.
In addition to heaping the continent’s dictators with “no strings attached” financial aid, Beijing has deployed its state-of-the surveillance technology to help its most reliable African partners have iron fists as strong as that of Xi Jinping, China’s undisputed “chairman.”
“But China doesn’t just want to dominate these markets,” Foreign Policy wrote, in reference to Beijing’s financial assertiveness in African countries. “It wants to use developing countries as a laboratory to improve its own surveillance technologies.”