The ongoing surveillance in Xinjiang, China subjects both foreigners, tourist, and the locals to invasive searches. The monitoring which is very intrusive in nature starts at the border points used to access the Xinjiang region.
The guards at the border physically seize phones of all persons crossing into the Xinjiang region. The authorities then forcefully install an Android malware application on the seized phones. The malware is known locally as BXAQ or Fengcai and has other code names such as “CellHunter” and “MobileHunter.”
The installation of the malware is the first and significant stage of surveillance, which is as a result of the numerous functions the malware is capable of performing, top of all being mining of data from the devices it is installed in.
A concerted effort by the Guardian, the New York Times, Motherboard, SüddeutscheZeitung, and the German public broadcaster NDR found out that the malware once installed, sends all text messages on the phone as well as other pieces of data to the Chinese authority.
The malware can collect all of the phone’s calendar entries, contacts, call logs and text messages and upload them to a server. It can also scan the phone to show which applications are installed on the phone, extract the subject’s username and its contents.
The Uighur population in Xinjiang goes through a most unlawful, pervasive and draconian surveillance in comparison to others in Xinjiang. They live under continuous monitoring of the facial recognition system, Central Circuit Television (CCTV), physical searches and other humanitarian abuses
However, according to Maya Wang, who is a China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch statement as quoted below, the waters run deeper.
“what you’ve found goes beyond that: it suggests that even foreigners are subjected to such mass and unlawful surveillance.”
The above statement from Maya shows that even foreigners and tourist are no longer exempt from the round the clock multidimensional surveillance previously designed to be limited to the Uighur population in Xinjiang.
Reasons for the surveillance
Though no reasons justify subjecting any person to such inhuman degrading treatment, the Chinese government has a paranoia for Islamic religious activities. It is on edge believing that such actions, if unsupervised may give rise to terrorism or extremism amongst its populace.
The unsubstantiated belief has made Xinjiang residents and foreigners; mainly Turkic Muslims be targeted in such extreme acts of policing by the government of China.
The authorities interests in files containing Islamic extremist contents, academic books on Islam by leading scholars and music from a Japanese metal band known as Unholy grave due to their song with the title “Taiwan: Another China,” are the reasons behind the surveillance and searches.
Further, the trend around the world that treats borders as a law-free zone aggravates the situation. Such an undocumented assumption enables authorities to carry any outrageous form of surveillance at the border in total disregard to fundamental human rights.
The area most affected by the surveillance
The border crossing from Kyrgyzstan is the most affected. The authorities, apart from installing the malware called BXAQ or Fengcai on seized phones, take foreigners and tourists alike through several stages of scrutiny and security.
It takes almost a half a day to complete the search, which apart from inconveniencing travelers is a total waste of precious time, not forgetting the time is money.
Potential repercussions of the surveillance
The malware installed on the phones relies on the extraction of data from the devices. The extraction system builds a detailed but flawed picture of people’s lives. It does so through the generation of a massive amount of data from the devices. The owners of the phones are likely not to be even aware of the existence of the generated data on their phone or may have deleted the data generated from their phones ages ago yet a malware can still find such data on the device.
With the above properties of malware and in a country such as China where downloading the wrong application or news article could get you in a detention camp, most innocent people are likely to be punished for what is not even within their knowledge.
Given that the Chinese government, its laws, and practice conflates Islam religious activities and publications with terrorism and extremism, any articles or applications with Islamic words such as “jihad” may make someone be labeled a terrorist or an extremist.
Such a label is costly and may cost someone their lives or a lifetime in prison. This repercussion is not farfetched, especially in the light that the Chinese laws lack a definition of what amounts to terrorism and extremist acts.
The surveillance at the entry point into Xinjiang, China is, therefore, not only intrusive especially to foreigners and tourists but also spells legal doom to those trapped on the wrong side of the surveillance outcome.