China uses a surveillance app to search the phones of tourists entering the country

A joint investigation by several news organizations has uncovered another sign of China’s use of technology to expand its authoritarian control over the western province of Xinjiang. People coming across the border from Kyrgyzstan (see map below), including western tourists, are having their phones confiscated and searched. From the Guardian:

Border guards are taking their phones and secretly installing an app that extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself…

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…

It appears with the default Android icon and the words 蜂采 (Fēng cǎi); the term has no direct English translation, but relates to bees collecting honey.

The Guardian spoke to a traveller 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 travellers 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.

At no point were they told what was being done to the phones.

There are apparently two different procedures depending on which brand of phone you have. iPhones are plugged into a machine which can upload data from the phones. Android phones have an app installed which does the same job. The border guards searching the phones are apparently supposed to delete the app after using it but not all do. The current investigation began after a German tourist found the app and took it to Süddeutsche Zeitung. That app was then analyzed and a small portion of the searches it was carrying out were identified. From Vice:

Included in the app’s code are hashes for over 73,000 different files the malware scans for. Ordinarily, it is difficult to determine what specific files these hashes relate to, but the reporting team and researchers managed to uncover the inputs of around 1,300 of them. This was done by searching for connected files on the file search engine Virus Total. Citizen Lab identified the hashes in the VirusTotal database, and researchers from the Bochum team later downloaded some of the files from VirusTotal. The reporting team also found other copies online, and verified what sort of material the app was scanning for.

Many of the files that are scanned for contain clearly extremist content, such as the so-called Islamic State’s publication Rumiyah. But the app also scans for parts of the Quran, PDFs related to the Dalai Lama, and a music file from Japanese metal band Unholy Grave (the band has a song called “Taiwan: Another China.”)

Last week, Allahpundit wrote about a BBC report on the Chinese re-education centers in Xinjiang. These camps really are something straight out of the novel 1984 with people kept as prisoners at least 6-days a week and forced to chant communist party slogans until they get their minds right. We never see, of course, what happens to people who aren’t sufficiently upbeat about being sent to the camps but reports suggest it involves isolation and food deprivation. If you want to eat, support the party. That’s how things work in Democratic socialist Venezuela too.

Finally, this map shows the Xinjiang province along with some of the re-education camps set up for the region’s Muslim population:

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