Chinese Border Officials Are Installing a Spyware App on Smartphones of All Visitors

Written by Bill Toulas
Last updated September 25, 2021

If you are planning to visit China and get there by land, you should be aware that the border authorities will borrow your smartphone and install an intrusive spyware tool on it. The particular app gathers all sensitive data that you wouldn’t want to share with any government in the world, including your text messages, contacts list, calendar entries, and any personal data that has been recorded on the device. Moreover, it checks the stored pictures, videos, documents, and audio files against a database of 73,000 items that are pre-loaded into the spyware app’s code.

Examples of items that are hardcoded in the app include Islamic State documents, jihadi anthems, execution images and videos, train derailing instructions, etc. This indicates that the Chinese state is worried about Islamic terrorism and takes proactive measures to stop it right at the border, but unfortunately, there is more. The list also contains Quran verses, which means that if you are a Muslim you immediately qualify as a problem for China, while photos of Dalai Lama are also in there, so Tibetans and Buddhists will also encounter trouble at the Chinese border. The weirder and most far-fetched example of what’s in the list is a grindcore metal song by a Japanese band, so no metal-heads are allowed either.

Right now, the reports of this spyware being installed on smartphones concern a specific region of the country, which is Xinjiang. This region happens to be the testbed for many oppressive, privacy-offending, and basic human-rights-ignoring systems, and this was not a random selection for the officials. Xinjiang is home to various Muslim ethnic minorities, and the Chinese government is not keen to accept this. However, this doesn’t mean that other groups are spared the phone scanning at the border. To the contrary, everyone, including Chinese passport holders go through the same process.

The app that’s installed on Android devices is named “Fengcai,” while iOS devices are scanned after getting connected via USB to a special unlocking device. Then, the border officials are taking photos of the visitors’ phones next to their passports so as to prove that they had the spyware installed before passing the checkpoint. Of course, while all this is clearly ordered from above, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and the Xinjiang regional government have not issued an official statement on why exactly they are running this program, what they do with the collected data, and who analyzes it. If you have to pass through the Xinjiang border by land, leave your daily driver device at home and pick up a 'feature phone' containing only the essential information.

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