China reportedly scans tourists' phones by installing malware

The app, which downloads texts, call logs and calendar entries, is installed when tourists cross certain borders, according to an investigative report.

Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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Corinne Reichert
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Chinese border agents are reportedly using malware to grab information from tourists' phones.

Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

The Chinese government is reportedly forcing foreigners to download malware onto their phones when crossing into the country. The malware downloads people's text messages, phone logs and calendar entries, and scans the device for around 73,000 other files, according to a joint investigation by The New York Times, the Guardian, Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung and German broadcaster NDR.

The reports follow the Huawei blocking saga in the US amid national security concerns that the Chinese tech giant has close ties with the Chinese government. Huawei has repeatedly denied that charge. China, meanwhile, has reportedly blocked access to US news sites in addition to blocking off Western social media and Wikipedia from its citizens.

According to the joint report on Tuesday, tourists crossing the Chinese border into the Xinjiang region have had their phones seized by border guards, who then install Android malware called BXAQ or Fengcai. It searches for any Islamic content, the publications said, citing several expert analyses of the software.

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The malware also searched for parts of the Quran, Dalai Lama PDF files and music from a Japanese metal band, Unholy Grave, the reports said.

A tourist who had the malware installed on their phone reportedly provided it to both Süddeutsche Zeitung and Motherboard, with a reporter at Süddeutsche Zeitung then crossing the border and experiencing the malware installation themselves. That reporter also said they saw machines being used to search iPhones at the border.

"We already know that Xinjiang residents, particularly Turkic Muslims, are subjected to round-the-clock and multidimensional surveillance," Motherboard quoted Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, as saying. "[This malware] suggests that even foreigners are subjected to such mass, and unlawful surveillance."

Human Rights Watch didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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