Research finds Uighurs targeted by Chinese spyware as part of surveillance campaign
The Uighur Muslim population has been the target of a Chinese campaign that used mobile spyware to conduct surveillance since at least 2013, a report released Wednesday found.
The Lookout Threat Intelligence Team found evidence of four Android surveillance malware tools which largely targeted the Uighur population, likely as part of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the ethnic minority group.
The spyware apps were able to gather and steal personal information off the devices and send it back to attackers, who according to Lookout were based in China. The company noted in its report that it believed the malware was downloaded to devices through phishing emails and third-party Android app stores, which are not secure.
Lookout researchers also found evidence of the malicious spyware tools being used against Tibetans, Uighur Muslims living outside China, and Muslims in other parts of the world.
The researchers observed a surge in creation of the surveillance malware that coincided with the beginning of China’s crackdown on the Uighur population in 2014, actions that have been harshly condemned by the international community for human rights violations.
“The development timeline and targeting of these families also appear to align with Chinese national security directives and ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts as defined by the Chinese government,” Lookout researchers wrote.
The study was released the same day the Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, State, and the Treasury released an advisory warning American businesses against operating in China’s Xinjiang region due to concerns over human rights abuses against Uighurs.
The Chinese government has been accused of subjecting hundreds of thousands of Uighurs to work camps and reeducation programs, forced sterilization, and various types of physical and mental abuse.
The agencies on Wednesday specifically pointed to concerns over surveillance tactics against Uighurs, writing in the advisory that the Chinese government had “established an unprecedented, intrusive, high-technology surveillance system across Xinjiang, as part of a province-wide apparatus of oppression aimed primarily against traditionally Muslim minority groups.”
Those surveillance tactics included using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technologies, along with a mobile app used by Chinese police to track personal information about Uighur residents.
“China continues to commit brutal human rights abuses against ethnic minorities from Xinjiang, including operating dystopian surveillance systems and employing the contemptible practice of forced labor,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement on Wednesday. “This business advisory highlights the risks U.S. companies, individuals, and other organizations face when dealing with entities involved in these human rights abuses.”
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