VISITING CHINA SOON? Then maybe take a spare phone as Chinese border control guards in the Xinjiang region have apparently been installing surveillance apps on the Android smartphones of tourists.
That's according to an investigation carried out by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Süddeutsche Zeitung, with travellers entering the Chinese region from Kyrgyzstan apparently targeted.
Border guards reportedly took tourists' phones and secretly installed an app on them which could extract emails, texts and contacts, along with information about the handset; basically a mother-load of privacy-sapping stuff.
There are reports that in some cases Android phones are returned to those entering the region with an app called Fēng cǎi installed. Apple's iPhones don't appear to come back with the app, but they could have been scanned by border control guards in a separate area after travellers were forced to hand them over.
Apparently, tourists weren't warned of the phone wrangling before they got to the border control, nor were they informed about what data was being extracted and how it would be used.
The Guardian, along with academics and cybersecurity experts, analysed the app and noted that it looks like it was designed by a Chinese company and was aimed at searching phones for a large number of terms China's government views as problematic, such as references to Islamic extremism and literature by the Dalai Lama.
This comes at a time when Chinese authorities have been clamping down on the Muslim population of the Xinjiang province, including putting facial recognition cameras in mosques and reportedly forcing residents of the region to download phone-searching software, reported The Guardian.
As such, this supposed snooping on tourists and entrants to the Xinjiang region looks like an extension of this restriction of Muslim freedoms in the area.
Heavy-handed surveillance in China is depressingly common, but monitoring people's phones without a warrant seems quite a step, especially if some innocent messages, say asking a question about Ramadan, could land the phone's user in hot water with the Chinese authorities; alarming stuff when you consider China makes use of detention camps.
That being said, at US border control, the authorities can search your phone and other devices without having a specific warrant, which has also triggered a privacy argument that's doing the rounds.
We suggest staying at home, as there's a whole world of Netflix out there to explore and no one will want to rifle through your phone, unless you have a particularly nosy partner. µ
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