Chinese border authorities have been installing an app on tourists’ smartphones which gathers personal data including text messages and contacts, it has been reported.
The malware is being installed at the borders of the western Xinjiang region, which was described as “a police state with few modern parallels” by The New York Times – referencing the alleged concentration camps holding Uighur Muslims.
The app scans devices for 73,000 specific files, according to a technical analysis of the code reported by Vice Motherboard.
These files include propaganda by Islamic State, from jihadi music to images of executions, but also more benign Islamic content, and even a photograph of the Dalai Lama, as well as songs by a Japanese metal band.
“The Chinese government, both in law and practice, often conflates peaceful religious activities with terrorism,” Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the NYT.
“You can see in Xinjiang, privacy is a gateway right: once you lose your right to privacy, you’re going to be afraid of practicing your religion, speaking what’s on your mind or even thinking your thoughts.”
The UN has previously said it had “credible reports” that around a million Muslim prisoners had been detained in what Chinese authorities refer to as “vocational training centres” despite observable similarities to prisons.
Last year, Amnesty International spoke of an “intensifying government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups”.
Beijing has refuted the allegations that up to a million members of its Uighur minority population are being held in internment camps, but human rights organisations have not retracted their claims.
The app “provides yet another source of evidence showing how pervasive mass surveillance is being carried out in Xinjiang”, added Ms Wang to Vice Motherboard.
“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.”