China has a reputation of having some big eyes and ears when it comes to surveillance, so much so that some Chinese brands of phones are not allowed to be sold in some countries. Apparently, according to this article from yesterday, that spying also extends to some tourists – without their knowledge, of course.
China Has Been Installing A Spying App on Some Tourists Phones
Now, if you have been to China recently and you just gasped at that title, here are two tidbits for you right off the bat – the app that they have been installing is only for Android phones (the app is called “Fēng cǎi”) and this has apparently been only happening at the border entry points in the Xinjiang region as tourists enter from Kyrgyzstan.
This app supposedly allows the Chinese authorities to scan e-mails and texts, as well as even allowing the location to be tracked. This information is apparently used by the Chinese to check various activities that the tourists are doing and to give intelligence on the practices of the people from Kyrgyzstan.
For tourists with iPhones, the report from the Guardian says that those phones are taken into another room where they can be scanned there, but no app is installed.
Hopefully, with this report from the Guardian, China will back off this practice or at least tourists will become more aware of it when they enter China through those entry points.
How to Avoid Problems
If you want to make sure your information stays private on such trips, one thing I have done in the past is to use a completely different smartphone that is tied to a separate Google account.
Yes, I was not able to check my regular e-mails and messages on other accounts (I did not do this in China) but was at least able to know that my regular accounts would stay safe and outside the prying eyes of the host country.
Also, make sure that you are not signed in to browsers like Google Chrome with your primary Google accounts. Also make sure that you do not download more than your essential apps or at least apps you are comfortable with to avoid a problem based on an app you have installed.
The Purpose of the App
The app has mostly been removed after the border check but it was left on some phones. So, don’t assume that your information wasn’t breached if you don’t have the app on your phone.
What the government is doing with this app is to check the information on the smartphone against a large list of things that the Chinese government has problems with. As the Guardian mentioned, this can be a huge problem since the wrong app (according to the Chinese government) could get the owner in some serious trouble.