China could use anti-fraud app to monitor Tibetans – report


The 'National Anti-fraud Centre', an app developed by China's Public Security Bureau to tackle suspicious and fraudulent calls, text messages and installed apps, is displayed on a smartphone in an arranged photograph on September 9, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Image caption,The app is touted as a way to report scams and receive help quickly from authorities

By Tessa Wong

BBC News

A Chinese app aimed at preventing fraud could be used to monitor Tibetans, according to a new report.

The investigation by Tibet research groups found the app could monitor users’ texts, internet browser histories and access personal data.

They also alleged some Tibetans were being forced to download the app.

Restrictions in Tibet have increased in recent years, say rights groups, tightening the screws on an already heavily controlled part of China.

Authorities have ramped up state surveillance and censorship in recent years, particularly during the pandemic.

Politically sensitive regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang have especially come under scrutiny. Beijing has long been wary of “secessionism” in these areas, but has stepped up crackdowns under leader Xi Jinping’s rule which has emphasised nationalist unity.

The new report, by research network Turquoise Roof and rights group Tibet Watch, centres on the controversial National Anti-Fraud Centre app which was rolled out in 2021.

While the report did not present any evidence that the app was actively targeting Tibetans, it said the app “aligns with extensive surveillance practices” and could aid the Chinese government’s efforts in controlling them.

The National Anti-Fraud Centre has been promoted as a scam prevention app which can detect potential fraudulent texts and calls, while allowing users to report scams and receive help quickly from authorities. China has been battling a wave of internet and phone scams in recent years.

Turquoise Roof conducted a forensic analysis of the app and says it found that some of its functions could be exploited for surveillance purposes.

The app can monitor incoming text messages, and access call logs and internet browser histories. It can also capture users’ inputs such as passwords, and take photos which would allow it to gather visual data on users and surroundings.

Its face recognition verification feature could also be used for large-scale harvesting of data to enhance tracking and monitoring of Tibetans, the report added.

One way is by forcing Tibetans to download the app. One refugee told Tibet Watch last year he was stopped at a police checkpoint while on his way home from school, and told to install the app on his phone.

People walk on the Barkhor street after a snowfall on December 8, 2023 in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
Image caption,Rights groups say restrictions on Tibetans have increased in recent years

Complaints about mandatory downloads of the app arose soon after its launch, when it was installed on an estimated 200 million phones.

Some local government agencies made it compulsory for employees, while others had to download the app in order to enrol their children into schools or apply for identification cards, reported the Financial Times.

The newspaper also spoke to users who said they were contacted by the police after the app detected they had visited foreign financial news websites, including Bloomberg.

Separately, Turquoise Roof uncovered from government procurement notices that Chinese authorities were maintaining a large database of Tibetan individuals deemed as a threat to stability. The database used software from US company Oracle.

They said it was “reasonable to hypothesise” that any data collected by the anti-fraud app could be used in this database.

The report called for the Chinese government to put in place greater privacy protections and to investigate claims of coercion to download the app.

It also called for international companies and governments to ensure they do not provide resources for China’s mass surveillance programmes.

Beijing has wielded a tight grip on Tibet since it sent in troops in 1950 to enforce its claims of sovereignty over the region.

Activists say China limits Tibetans’ freedom of travel by controlling their passports, and also heavily monitors their communications with the outside world.

Tibet Watch has documented several cases of Tibetans detained for their messages on popular messaging platform WeChat, and instances where accounts and keywords deemed too politically sensitive were suspended or scrubbed.

Besides Tibet, China has famously employed mass surveillance techniques in Xinjiang to control the Uyghurs.

In 2019 Human Rights Watch found that authorities were using a surveillance platform and app to monitor the movements and data of people in Xinjiang.

That same year, an investigation by several Western newspapers found that border police were installing surveillance apps on the phones of visitors to the region.

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