Chinese spyware targets Uyghurs through apps: Report

Chinese spyware targets Uyghurs through apps: Report

Cybersecurity researchers said they have found evidence of Chinese spyware in Uighur-language apps that can track the location and harvest the data of Uighurs living in China and abroad.

Uighurs are a Turkish Muslim minority mainly in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, where a recent United Nations report said Beijing may have committed crimes against humanity.

The United States and lawmakers in other Western countries say China’s treatment of the Uyghurs amounts to genocide.

A Thursday report from San Francisco-based cybersecurity firm Lookout claims that since 2018, several Uighur Android apps have been found to be infected with two spyware linked to Chinese state-backed hacking groups.

They include dictionaries, religious apps, maps and even pirated versions of WhatsApp available on third-party stores or shared on Uyghur channels on Telegram.

They weren’t available on the official Google Play store, which is blocked in China, forcing Chinese users to use third-party app stores.

The spyware enabled hackers to collect sensitive data, including a user’s location, contacts, call logs, text messages and files, the report said, and could also take photos and record conversations.

Researchers said the apps could have been used to detect evidence of religious extremism or separatism, for which Uighurs have been jailed, some for decades, as part of a sweeping anti-terror crackdown in Xinjiang that observers say amounts to a mass incarceration campaign .

Large Uyghur diaspora populations also live in Central Asia and Turkey.

“The campaign appears to be aimed primarily at Uyghurs in China. However, we found evidence of wider targeting of Muslims and Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang, the report said.

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“Several of the samples we analyzed were published as map apps for other countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Turkey or Afghanistan.”

– Monitoring state –

For years, China has engaged in mass surveillance of Uighurs in Xinjiang, creating a province-wide surveillance platform that vacuums Uighurs’ personal data from their phones and tracks their movements through facial recognition.

Several Chinese surveillance and camera companies have been sanctioned by the United States for alleged complicity in human rights abuses.

Uighurs living abroad have spoken of attempted border surveillance and coercion by Chinese police back in Xinjiang.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told Bloomberg News “we oppose wild guesses and malicious statements against China”, adding that the country opposes “all forms of cyber attacks”.

Examples of the infected apps were dated from 2018 onwards, and the vast majority of apps infected with one spyware strain were discovered in the second half of this year, the report said.

“Despite mounting international pressure, Chinese threat actors operating on behalf of the Chinese state are likely to continue to deploy surveillance equipment targeting Uyghur and Muslim mobile phone users through Uyghur communications platforms,” ​​Lookout researchers wrote.

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