Is China installing surveillance apps on tourists’ smartphones?

Border security officials operating on the border crossing between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan have reportedly been installing surveillance apps on tourists’ phones that give them access to text messages, phone calls, calendar entries and other data.

The ‘spy app’ was revealed after a joint investigation by The Guardian, Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the New York Times and German public broadcaster NDR, during which a copy of the app that the authorities accidentally left on a traveller’s phone was reverse engineered.

Usually, according to Travel Weekly, the app is uninstalled by border officers once they are satisfied no suspicious activity is found.

The app, called CellHunter, is used at the border crossing where travellers are asked to unlock their devices and hand them over to border officials for inspection. Any information retrieved is then reportedly stored on a server at the border.

Investigators found the app was trawling for extremist material and propaganda magazines from Isis and al-Qaida, as well as books on Islam, the writings of the Dalai Lama, the history and culture of Xinjiang and criticism of China’s involvement in Taiwan.

While investigators did not find that the app tracked visitor movements, The Guardian suggested that some of the harvested information could be used to allow the Chinese state to track travellers.

“[This app] provides yet another source of evidence showing how pervasive mass surveillance is being carried out in Xinjiang,” said senior researcher at Human Rights Watch Maya Wang.

“We already know that Xinjiang residents – particularly Turkic Muslims – are subjected to round-the-clock and multidimensional surveillance in the region.

“What you’ve found goes beyond that: it suggests that even foreigners are subjected to such mass and unlawful surveillance.”

Were you aware that such processes were in place at borders around the world? Have you ever had to hand your phone over for inspection by border guards?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?


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