Border officers are reportedly installing a surveillance app on tourists’ phones before they cross certain borders, giving authorities access to text messages, phone logs calendar entries and other pieces of data.
A joint investigation by The Guardian, Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the New York Times and German public broadcaster NDR reverse engineered a copy of the app that authorities accidentally left on a travellers phone.
Usually, the app is uninstalled by border officers if nothing concerning is found.
The Guardian reported the app, which refers to itself as CellHunter, is being used at the border crossing between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan, where one of several stages of border crossing via the Irkeshtam pass involves travellers unlocking their devices and hand them over.
Once the information is retrieved, it is reportedly sent for storage on a server on the border office’s local intranet.
The group investigating the app found it was mostly searching for extremist material and propaganda magazines from Isis and al-Qaida, but also more innocent Islamic material, such as academic books on Islam.
Motherboard notes the Islamic angle is interesting, considering the app is being installed in the Xinjiang region, where authorities are conducting a widespread surveillance and oppression campaign against the local Muslim population.
But the app doesn’t only target Islamic and extremist texts, the Guardian reported it also searches for the writings of the Dalai Lama, work on the history and culture of Xinjiang and criticism of China’s involvement in Taiwan.
Investigators found no evidence the app was tracking travellers movements, but according to the Guardian, the harvested information combined with passport details could allow the Chinese state to track travellers future connections to mobile phone towers.
“[This app] provides yet another source of evidence showing how pervasive mass surveillance is being carried out in Xinjiang,” Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told 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.”