It seems like one thing out of dystopian fiction. Unfortunately, it’s actuality. China has been secretly installing a surveillance app on tourists’ phones as they enter the northwestern Xinjiang area, based on a new exclusive investigation by the New York Times and other shops. This is the same area where the government has detained an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims in internment camps.
If you attempt to cross over by land from central Asia into Xinjiang, Chinese border agents stop you on the port of entry. They insist you hand over your phone, which they take into a separate room whilst you wait for an hour or more. They install an app referred to as Fengcai, which downloads your phone’s data — all your text messages, contacts, call log history, calendar entries, and installed apps. All this delicate data is then sent, unencrypted, to an area server.
The app automatically scans your data for 73,000 specific items that China deems threatening. That includes materials that encourage terrorism, like al-Qaeda or Islamic State publications, in addition to Western academic books about terrorism. The app also hunts for scanned pages from an Arabic dictionary and benign expressions of religiosity like parts of the Quran or a photograph of the Dalai Lama.
The app was put in on the phones of several tourists who, after leaving China, went to reporters in Germany with the story. A journalist on the investigative group also attempted to cross the border into Xinjiang and had the same app force-put in before being allowed to enter the area.