China Installing App On Tourist’s Phones That Steals Personal Data

Privacy is a growing concern across the world.  I’ve heard reports of people ordered to unlock their phones for customs and immigration officials when entering a country.  The United States is now requiring visa applicants to submit their social media accounts as part of the approval process.  But, a recent article indicates China is taking invasion of privacy to a much higher level.

The New York Times is reporting that China is installing an app on tourist’s phones arriving in the Xinjiang province that, amongst other things, gathers text messages and contacts from the user’s smartphone. The move has been explained by China as an attempt to thwart terrorism.  However, it seems to be more widely used than that.  And, even in cases where Chinese officials do not install an app on an arriving person’s smartphone (including holders of Chinese passports), personal devices are being scanned in a nature that’s incredibly concerning:

One of the journalists undertook the border crossing in recent months. Holders of Chinese passports, including members of the majority Han ethnic group, had their phones checked as well, the journalist said.

Apple devices were not spared scrutiny. Visitors’ iPhones were unlocked and connected via a USB cable to a hand-held device, the journalist said. What the device did could not be determined.

The Final Two Pennies

I don’t consider myself overly paranoid about privacy.  It’s my belief that the US government already has extensive information on me, and I’m not in the habit of breaking any laws.  However, this report from China is incredibly disturbing to me, in an Orwellian sort of way.

China claims they’re scanning smartphones for key information they believes might indicate someone is more prone to be involved in terrorism.  But, since some of the activities are undefined (like the scanning of iPhones by a hand-held device), they could be collecting all sorts of information from private citizens.  Since there’s no disclosure over what data China is seizing, there’s really no guarantee they won’t go further with analysis and exploitation of the data.

I’ve heard notional reports of people who erase their phones before entering certain countries, restoring their information from the cloud later on.  Programs such as 1Password facilitate the ability to do so, though I have no personal experience doing so.  This recent report out of China makes me wonder if I’ll need to start familiarizing myself with such methods.

Would you allow a government official access to your smartphone in exchange for entry into their country?

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14 Comments

  1. Thanks for the heads up! Sheesh! When I go to China now, my company makes me take an entirely different laptop to mitigate data from being stolen. Now it seems I’ll have to take a different phone too.

  2. You do know that this is standard procedure at the US border as well, don’t you? They will randomly scan and mirror all of your electronic devices as the price of entering the US. Whether they install an app or not I do not know, but would not be surprised.

    And the issue isn’t just your personal information. It’s the personal information of everyone in your contacts, everyone in your email, everyone linked in your social media accounts. That’s not your information to give, but apparently governments have no qualms about taking it. But then why should they? Facebook has been doing it for years.

    1. YULtide, I haven’t heard any firsthand reports of anything other than scanning devices. I have not heard of anyone who has personally had their device mirrored/downloaded, etc but I’m looking for someone who has to give us more info.

      1. There’s this report from the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/31/us-border-phone-computer-searches-how-to-protect

        Note the following paragraph:

        “In addition to going through people’s smartphones in person, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) can also confiscate devices for a further forensic examination. In this case agents can make full copies of all of the data on the phone, which can be shared with other government agencies. DHS has published test results from dozens of tools it can use to extract data from phones.”

        For the policy from the horse’s mouth see https://www.cbp.gov/document/directives/cbp-directive-no-3340-049a-border-search-electronic-devices noting particularly the language about copying in 5.1.4

        And there’s a recent first person account here https://theintercept.com/2019/06/22/cbp-border-searches-journalists/ though the CBP officer denied copying the phone or computer when asked.

  3. First of all, this was done by the People’s Republic of China, not the Republic of China. Big difference. Do not kowtow to the People’s Republic of China by failing to make this distinction. They have been on a brainwashing campaign since the 1970’s and have largely been successful due to the US media unwittingly helping.

    Second of all, don’t bring your phone overseas. Not just the People’s Republic of China.

  4. @Ed – Any idea about Hong Kong? Stealing information from visitor’s phones and computers has been commonplace on the mainland for many years, but if it’s happening in Hong Kong, that’s troubling new information.

  5. Read it, it says: “install the app on smartphones belonging to travelers who enter Xinjiang by land from Central Asia, If Fengcai remains on a person’s phone after it is installed, it does not continue scanning the device in the background, the app’s code indicates.”…..that’s why you can never go to China for your ignorance

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