Report: Uyghurs in China Forced to Install Surveillance App That Leaves Their Data Unsecured

Residents pass by a security checkpoint with cameras in Xinjiang's Kashgar city, Nov. 5, 2017. AP

By Roseanne Gerin
2018-04-10

The surveillance application that authorities in northwestern China’s volatile Xinjiang region are forcing Muslim  Uyghurs to install on their mobile devices to track online activities and censor content lacks encryption to secure the transfer of collected data, according to a report by a group that supports global internet freedom technologies.

The Open Technology Fund (OTF), a program under the auspices of U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia, said in a recent report that the app sends the unsecured data to an outside central server operated by the Chinese government.

Authorities began requiring citizens in Xinjiang to install the Android app known as Jingwang, or “clean internet” in Chinese, on their mobile devices last year in another move to fuel repression in the heavily surveilled Muslim-majority region.

Local police have enforced the policy with spot-checks of mobile phones on the street.

The app records each device’s identifying information, scans the device’s external storage for files it deems “dangerous,” and transmits the information to the server without encryption, said OTF, which supported the investigation of Jingwang by third-party cybersecurity researchers.

“This means all the data the app collects is transmitted to the unknown entity on the receiving end in a way that allows someone with a trivial amount of technical knowledge to intercept and potentially manipulate,” OTC said in a blog post on Monday.

“While the forced installation of this mobile app serves to monitor the activities of an entire population, the broad scope of the app combined with its lack of basic security only further harms those required to use it,” the post said.

Though the server scans the transmitted data for information the government disapproves of and prompts users to delete it, it is not yet clear what content is being targeted for deletion, said Omer Kanat, chairman of the executive board of the World Uyghur Congress based in Munich, Germany.

“The fact that this makes all private data easily hackable by criminals further demonstrates that the government has little concern for its citizens,” he said in a statement to RFA’s Uyghur Service on Tuesday. “Uyghurs are once again the first targets of new repressive technology.”

Police continue to physically check Uyghurs' phones on the streets of Xinjiang to ensure they have installed the app, Kanat said.

“This new technology means that Uyghurs have lost whatever privacy they might have had, making it extremely dangerous for them to express any dissent or dissatisfaction,” he said. “This reminds everyone that they are constantly being monitored, and this ‘automated repression’ is truly something unprecedented, and again shows how Orwellian life has become for Uyghurs.”

Authorities in Xinjiang also use surveillance cameras and facial-recognition systems to monitor Uyghurs, and have recently expanded their activities by implementing a “big data” program, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), designed to predict offenses, Human Rights Watch said in a report it issued in March.

The system combines information from police reports, vehicle checkpoints, banking and health-care records, and technological collection systems into a single program for police reference, the report said.

Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”

China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.

Additional reporting by Alim Seytoff for RFA's Uyghur Service.

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