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The app, said to be designed by a Chinese company, searches for phones based on the Android operating system and checks its content against topics and media that the Chinese government considers inappropriate.
The gathering of information in China's Xinjiang region has been part of an effort by Beijing authorities to restrict and monitor activities of the local Muslim population, according to The Guardian report. The report says such material ranges from terms associated with Islamist extremism and weapons operation manuals to apparently innocuous information such as fasting during Ramadan and music by a Japanese heavy metal group.
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'MFSocket' Allows Chinese Police To Spy On Their Citizens Directly From Their Phones — Z6 Mag
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The surveillance app being installed on their devices should have been removed by the border officers tasked with the job. But their apparent carelessness has provided a rare insight into the techniques used by China to snoop on visitors and the kind of information being harvested from their phones.
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Unlike some of the advanced technology being used by authorities in the region to surveil citizens, the app is not especially sophisticated. Before the border police can install and operate it, the user has to unlock the phone and hand it over. Analysis shows that the app harvests emails, contact numbers, SMS messages, social media account identifiers and detailed information about the handset, including unique device identifiers.
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This appears to provide a guide to the content the Chinese state considers suspicious, including MP3s, documents and pictures. The app searches the phone for files which are the same size and then generates a fingerprint for that file. Using file hashing databases the Guardian and partners were able to see what the authorities were searching for.
In our sample most of the files were extremist material such as Dabiq and Inspire, propaganda magazines produced by Isis and al-Qaida, but there was also other content that the Chinese state appears to deem undesirable.