Chinese border police are installing spyware apps on tourists’ phones when they enter the country’s Xinjiang region. The app records and downloads personal data including messages, call logs and contacts, according to international media outlets.

The forced surveillance is believed to be part of China’s ongoing oppression of its local Muslim population but is the first time tourists have been involved.

The app is installed on tourists’ phones when they are seized by border agents at the Irkeshtam border crossing between China and Kyrgyzstan. It specifically scans for Islamic content, both extreme and innocuous, but also looks for other content deemed problematic by Chinese authorities.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is aware of the reports. It has recently reviewed its travel advice and maintained its warning that travellers in the Xinjiang region “exercise a high degree of caution”.

“As our travel advice recommends, travellers to Xinjiang should exercise a high degree of caution,” a spokesperson for DFAT told Which-50.

“Increased measures are being taken by authorities and individuals of Uighur descent are particularly affected,” the spokesperson said.

The tourist surveillance was uncovered through a joint investigation by Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, The New York Times, and the German public broadcaster NDR. It found tourists were routinely having their phones seized without warning so the app could be secretly installed. 

The app is installed on android phones (iphones are scanned) and searches for over 70,000 different file types. In most cases the app is uninstalled before being returned to tourists. Analysis by The Guardian and German cyber security experts suggests the data is uploaded to Chinese servers.

The app searches for Islamic content, which Chinese authorities view as problematic. However, in addition to extremist material, it also scans for more mundane content like literature from the Dalai Lama, information on fasting during Ramadan and music from a Japanese metal band.

The surveillance app (right) has been accidentally left on some tourist’s phones. Image: The Guardian.

Surveillance of the local Muslim population is much more severe. Muslims in Xinjiang live under constant surveillance by the Chineses Government via facial recognition systems, CCTV and physical searches. Those found practicing religion in the area are reportedly sent to detention camps and most of the region’s mosques have been destroyed or are scheduled to be.

The tactic has effectively criminalised the practice of Islam, according to reports. 

Chinese authorities have not responded to Which-50’s attempts to confirm the reports.

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