Tourists, traders, and other visitors to Xinjiang may find the government digging deep into their smartphones. According to several people who requested anonymity to avoid government retaliation, China’s border authorities routinely install an app on smartphones belonging to travelers who enter Xinjiang to snoop on their activities. On Android devices, officers installed an app called Fengcai (pronounced “FUNG-tsai”).
The Fengcai app is used for gathering personal data and scanning for material considered objectionable. It checks the devices’ text messages, contacts, pictures, videos, documents and audio files for censored content like Islamic State publications, recordings of jihadi anthems, recorded recitations of Quran verses, or a photo of the Dalai Lama, among tens of thousands of other things. China considers the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, a dangerous separatist.
Border authorities routinely install the app on the phones of people entering the Xinjiang region by land from Central Asia. According to reports, Chinese border officials demanded that visitors unlock and hand over their handsets and computers to be allowed into Xinjiang. The app was installed on the phone of one of the journalists reporting on the matter during a recent border crossing. The journalists asked researchers at the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany and the Open Technology Fund to analyze the code, which ultimately resulted in an assessment of the app.
Travelers using Apple devices were not spared from scrutiny. Visitors’ iPhones were unlocked and connected via a USB cable to a hand-held device, according to the journalist who made the border crossing. What the device did has not been determined.
China employs a combination of high-tech surveillance and enormous manpower in the western region of Xinjiang. The region is home to many of the country’s Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group, and Muslim ethnic minorities. Chinese officials defend the crackdown in Xinjiang as a nonlethal way of fighting terrorism. The government claims that Islamic extremists and Uighur separatists use Central Asian countries as staging grounds for deadly attacks on Chinese targets.