China forces malware on tourist phones at border: Here’s what they want

Chris Burns - Jul 2, 2019, 4:18 pm CDT
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China forces malware on tourist phones at border: Here’s what they want

A set of publications took the time to travel to China to investigate a claim that China installed malware on tourist phones at their borders. As it turned out, this practice didn’t occur at every single station, but it was certainly happening – and it was government sanctioned. Today we’re taking a look at the app that border agents installed on tourist phones as they entered the country. This app was extremely blatant in its techniques and searches.

The app, and what it does

At the border to China, agents collected smartphones from tourists entering the country from Kyrgyzstan, installed malware, and returned said phones to their owners. The malware went by the name BXAQ or Fengcai, and it is apparently still being installed on phones today. The malware takes the form of an app called CellHunter or MobileHunter, and is relatively easy to remove – or so it would seem.

Publications VICE, the Guardian, and the New York Times crossed the border to see if the tipped reports of malware insertion in phones at the border was accurate. Indeed that was the situation, and the information China aimed to collect was straight up bonkers.

We’ve taken a look at the app ourselves. This was possible thanks to the combined efforts of the above publications. They’ve posted the app over on the epitomes of software hosting sites, Github, making it available there for download and analysis all over the internet.

What can the app do?

The app is like an octopus, spreading its many arms out, seeking data of many sorts. One ID write file (removable by the agent after the initial scan) turned up a simple list of usernames, passwords, and more.

File Content Scan Results by China’s border malware:
• Mobile Wallet login, info
• Mobile carrier info, records with login
• Renren talk log (text cache for Facebook-like social network)
• File content in text message logs
• Alibaba login info, history cache
• Phone number
• Android-based Sogou Maps (like Google Maps) location history
• Android-based file content cache
• Weibo login, file content cache
• And a whole lot more, like phone’s manufacturer, model, Android version, WiFi address, Bluetooth MAC info, IMEI, IMSI

These items are only the bits collected by default, if present in the phone. Analyzation also includes the flagging of items of interest for the border officers doing the scanning. A list of approximately 73,315 items was turned up by DWUID’s analysis in part of this investigation. If any of these items is found on a device, the owner will be questioned further by officers at least – and likely not just questioned.

While the app analyzed here was Android-based, iPhone scanning was also done via USB connection. The device that connected to each iPhone was not available for analysis.

Xinjiang one root of many

The methods described above pale in comparison to the concentration camps (or re-education camps) China runs in Xinjiang. In the Xinjiang area, the Chinese government has facial recognition-equipped surveillance cameras in the streets. They have cameras in every populated area. They’ve got police checkpoints in and out of the region.

This region’s full name is the the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” and it’s got a square footage around four times the size of the US state of California. According to the Spiegel, China has stationed approximately 500 police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants of the region. According to the FBI in a 2011 (most recent available) census of Full-time Law Enforcement Employees, the state with the most police officers still has only 3/5ths the amount (police per person) of China’s Xinjiang.

This region also uses iris scanners and wi-fi sniffing gadgets to keep any suspicious activity under control. The Spiegel’s source Adrian Zenz estimates China’s stolen away hundreds of thousands of residents of the area to bring them to “re-education camps.” Whether they’re brought to these camps or not, every single citizen in the area is subject to surveillance to a degree we’ve not yet imagined.

Citizens banking activity and consumer habits are under surveillance. Citizen’s health statuses are tracked. The Chinese government has on file the DNA of every single person living in Xinjiang.

All of this information is collected and organized by an “integrated join operations platform”. With this computing software, China is able to analyze the personal lives of every person in Xinjiang. The governing body acts upon any bit of data on a person they find undesirable. Any person can be apprehended for any reason and shipped to a re-education camp.

When citizens are, as locals call it, “sent to school,” or “qu xuexi,” they are rarely heard of for several months. After months of no contact with family whatsoever, some of those residents taken away for “re-education” are allowed to speak with former friends or family, via a “video stream from the prison visitor area,” according to the Spiegel (linked above).

But why?

In the year 1949, Xinjiang was enveloped by the People’s Republic of China. At that time, the region was largely comprised of a people called the Uighurs. Over the past several decades, China’s pushed Han Chinese into the area, and Uighurs began to protest. The Chinese government did not approve, and began to tighten its grip on the people and the region. In recent years, the area became a police state that may be unequaled in our modern world today.

The exact reasoning for this complete disregard for privacy and human decency isn’t totally known outside the Chinese government. At this time, it would appear that situations like these are only getting worse inside the borders of the country called the “People’s Republic.”


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