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21 July 2017

China forces its Muslim minority to install spyware on their phones

A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang.
A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang.

Image: LightRocket via Getty Images

China has ramped up surveillance measures in Xinjiang, home to much of its Muslim minority population, according to reports from Radio Free Asia.

Authorities sent out a notice over a week ago instructing citizens to install a “surveillance app” on their phones, and are conducting spot checks in the region to ensure that residents have it.

The notice, written in Uyghur and Chinese, was sent by WeChat to residents in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. 

Android users were instructed to scan the QR code in order to install the Jingwang app that would, as authorities claimed, “automatically detect terrorist and illegal religious videos, images, e-books and electronic documents” stored in the phone. If illegal content was detected, users would be ordered to delete them.

Users who deleted, or did not install the app, would be detained for up to 10 days, according to social media users.

A teardown analysis by users in China showed that the app appears similar to a “citizen safety” (百姓安全) app developed by Urumqi police in April this year. The app, developed in-house, allowed users to report suspicious events to the police.

The app reportedly scans for the MD5 digital signatures of media files in the phone, and matches them to a stored database of offending files classified by the government as illegal “terrorist-related” media.

Jinwang also keeps a copy of Weibo and WeChat records, as well as a record of IMEI numbers, SIM card data and Wifi login data. The records are then sent to a server.

This move is the latest in digital surveillance in Urumqi. In March, government workers were asked to sign an agreement have “terrorist-related” media content, while the police sprung a surprise spot check on a group of nursing students.

Image: WuTuBuLaGe nursing school/WEChat

Image: WUTUBULAGE NURSING SCHOOL/WECHAT

“Chinese police are so powerful, particularly in Xinjiang, [that] anyone being stopped is unlikely to be able to refuse the police’s requests,” Maya Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Mashable.

“The authorities have a lot of explaining to do about this software, including what it does,” she added. “While the authorities have the responsibility to protect public safety, including by fighting terrorism, such mass collection of data from ordinary people is a form of mass surveillance, and an intrusion to privacy.”

“I think there is reason to be concerned about what kinds of data these apps may be collecting about users and their activity without their knowledge or consent,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based analyst with Amnesty International.

Xinjiang has a population of eight million Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group. Its people have complained of longstanding oppression under the country’s Communist government.

In March, the government banned veils and the growing of long beards — traditional Muslim customs.

Last year, Xinjiang residents who used foreign messaging apps such as Whatsapp found they had their phone services cut.

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