An international media investigation has revealed that Chinese authorities secretly install an application on tourists’ mobile phones to watch over foreign citizens.

According to an investigation by the British newspaper ” The Guardian”, in collaboration with the German “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and the American “The New York Times”, Chinese border guards in Xinjiang secretly install surveillance applications on the mobile phones of tourists using the Irkeshtam border (between Kyrgyzstan and the Chinese territory) and collect personal information. The software in question extracts emails, messages, and contacts, and can be used to track and track movements.

This measure is in line with the current scrutiny of the Chinese Government in the region concerned, especially where the Muslim community has seen their freedom repressed, with the installation of facial recognition cameras in mosques and on the streets.

Application searches for objectionable content

The research, to which academics and cybersecurity experts contributed, notably the German company Cure53, suggests that the application, designed by a Chinese company, looks for a range of content that authorities perceive as problematic. The long list includes links to Islamic extremism , which includes an al-Qaeda-produced English magazine and several weapons manuals, but also seemingly harmless material such as Dalai Lama literature, Japanese metal band music Unholy Grave), information on Ramadan, and a self-help book written by an American author (“The 33 Strategies of War”).

In a first phase, travellers have to unlock the handsets, which are then taken to a room and returned later. The iPhones are connected to a reader, while in the Androids the application is installed. It is not known what is done with the information extracted nor how long it is stored.

Although there is no evidence to conclude that the data is used to track people’s movements on the trip, the stored information allows authorities to locate someone if used in conjunction with the location data of the device.

A tourist who crossed the border this year confirmed to “The Guardian” to have been installed an application on the mobile phone. He said that at some point authorities had asked the phones and their security codes for several travellers, who waited for about an hour until they got back, without receiving any information about it.

The Chinese authorities were contacted to comment on the matter but there was no response until the article was published.

Revelation “very alarming” says NGO

According to Chinese authorities, about 100 million people visit Xinjian every year, including domestic and international tourists. The Irkestam Pass is the westernmost border of China and is used by merchants and tourists.

Edin Omanović, of the British NGO “Privacy International”, called the revelation “very alarming in a country where installing the wrong application or seeing some wrong article could lead to detention.” “This is yet another example of why the surveillance regime in Xinjiang is one of the most illegal and diffuse in the world,” he added.

According to Maya Wang, head of Human Rights Watch in China, it was well known that “Xinjiang residents, particularly Turkish Muslims, are subject to multidimensional and uninterrupted surveillance in the region,” whereas “what has been found goes furthermore, suggesting that even foreigners are subject to such mass and illegal surveillance. “