China is notorious for its invasive security and surveillance operations, but now it has taken things to another level.
A report by Vice suggests that Chinese border guards are forcing tourists to install software, which is basically malware, on their phones. This software copies messaging, contacts, and scans the phones for thousands of different documents.
It turns out that this practice isn’t taking place at every station but there is no doubt that it’s happening and the government has authorized it.
Several tourists have reported such incidents while entering the Xinjiang region — home to the Uighur population. They are Turkic Muslims and millions of them live in China and most of them are in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has been openly hostile towards the Uighur for years and conducted mass surveillance and detention camps for them. It appears that the new malware, named BXAQ or Fengcai, is aimed at tracking the Uighur people and their sympathizers.
The Xinjiang border has heavy security and as a part of the checking process, the visitors must hand over their smartphones for a search.
Vice obtained a copy of the malware and got it analyzed by security firms. The software isn’t anything remarkable as it doesn’t exploit any security loopholes or vulnerabilities. But it does copy a huge amount of information from the phone and send it to Chinese servers.
The malware Fengcai is essentially an Android app, and it requires several sensitive permissions.
The app abuses those permissions to the max and guards actually have to side-load the app. It means bypassing several layers of protection that are present by default to prevent accidental installation of unverified apps.
After installation, the app lifts the phone’s messaging history, contacts, calendar entries, and even login details to a Chinese server.
After copying the data, Fengcai/BXAQ scans the phone for over 70,000 documents — ranging from extremist Islamic material to harmless things like the Quran or information on Dalai Lama. It even looks for songs by a Japanese metal band, “Unholy Grave,” because it has a song about Taiwan.
It seems that the app has been designed to uninstall after the data collection process is over since there’s a large “uninstall” button on it. But maybe the guards don’t care enough to make people remove it later.
A copy of the Android APK is uploaded to GitHub by Motherboard. But you shouldn’t install it. Meanwhile, tourists in other parts of China haven’t faced such issues. However, it won’t be surprising if something similar crops up elsewhere.