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Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Proliferation of Chinese Apps as Tools of Surveillance

China may not be part of the Five, Nine, and Fourteen Eyes Alliances, but it has one of the most advanced mass surveillance and censorship systems. Software and hardware developed in China often pose the threat of monitoring and recording the data of its users – that is why the US government is wary of Chinese apps data collection policy such as the case of Tiktok. Anyone found engaging in any activity the government does not endorse, undergoes huge trauma at the hands of the law.

One of the strongest hints comes from the head of research at the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure (DIVD), Victor Gever, who claims that billions of messages of Chinese app users like QQ and WeChat, were stored in a matter suggested they were a massive dragnet for censoring content. And obviously, there can’t be censoring without monitoring everything users do.

Why Do Chinese Apps Monitor User Data?

Why Do Chinese Apps Monitor User Data_
The Chinese government has been accused on many occasion over its roles in monitoring user’s activities through different chinese originated mobile apps. China has one of the most advanced mass surveillance and censorship systems. Most Chinese apps data are monitored against the user’s wish.

 “Every Chinese tech company has to comply with the Chinese cybersecurity law which allows the Chinese government to have access to the app’s data these companies collect – this is part of the nationwide mass surveillance systems that are in place in China,” said Victor Gevers. It is because of this reason most developers from China use a techno-surveillance approach for all their apps.

They believe all app data of users belong to their government. In their minds, it is okay to collect data in such a manner. And those who believe, the government doesn’t, we already know how they are dealt with. However, the implications of such a finding are insane. Smartphones, which are carried by most working-age people, are powerful tools if leveraged for monitoring and censoring.

Chinese Apps Data Used by Police?

Many Chinese apps data is used extensively by the police for monitoring people’s online behavior and movements. With COVID-19 taking over, the government has gained even more incentive to improve their surveillance activities. A “close-contact” app developed by the state-owned firm, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation is furthering China’s agendas.

Bear in mind this is the same company responsible for the surveillance technology deployed in Xinjiang. As a result, the app itself should be viewed with skepticism. It provides officials with data drawn from the China Railway and the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the Ministry of Transport, and the National Health Commission to track citizens’ contacts, health, and travel with infected people.

Can You Bypass Monitoring and Censorship?

It seems that China does not want to leave any stone unturned in keeping a strict eye on its citizens, and previously, they even took strict action against individuals trying to bypass imposed restrictions. VPN apps like Avast VPN were particularly banned in the country with the government even imposing legal fines. Later on, the Chinese Government approved the use of VPNs, as long as they provided backdoor access to these Chinese apps data.

Subsequently, there was an influx of free VPNs spreading in the marketplace, after which a study found that 59% of these apps had links to China, 86% of the apps had unacceptable privacy policies, 64% apps had no dedicated website, and 83% of app customer support email requests were ignored. Below are details on the numerous VPN apps with links to China:

Application NameOwnershipAndroid Downloads
SuperVPN Free VPN ClientChinese100 Million
VPN Super UnlimitedChinese1 Million
VPN Proxy MasterChinese10 Million
TurboVPNChinese100 Million
TouchVPNChinese10 Million
Snap VPNChinese10 Million
VPN 360Chinese1 Million
YogaVPNChinese10 Million
SkyVPNChinese10 Million
Thunder VPNHK Chinese1 Million
Free VPN by Freevpn.OrgChinese1 Million

At first, I thought this was a coincidence but upon digging further, I realized there’s more to the story. More or less, all these free VPNs have affiliations with companies located in China. And bear in mind, a lot of users online go for the “free” option, rather than paying for a premium VPN product. This can be verified by the number of downloads on the Google Play and Apple Store.

It is quite possible that these services may be indulging in session/connection logging to track the searches and activities of users online to enhance their solutions and spy on the people at the same time. As you can see, almost all VPNs have crossed an average of 10 million downloads (on the Google Play Store alone). And, if we talk about SnapVPN, VPN Master, and Turbo VPN, they even have an interconnected company structure.

The privacy policies of these three providers were incredibly similar (currently they have been removed or altered after people started noticing similarities). They openly stated that they do record a lot of user data, which includes everything that can reveal your identity, your location, and searches performed. Below is a snippet from one of the privacy policies:

The data we collect can include SDK/API/JS code version, browser, Internet service provider, IP address, platform, timestamp, application identifier, application version, application distribution channel, independent device identifier, iOS ad identifier (IDFA), Android ad master identifier, International Mobile Subscriber Identification Number(IMSI), iOS network card (MAC) address, and iOS international mobile device identification code (IMEI), the equipment model, email address, the terminal manufacturer, the terminal device operating system version, the session start/stop time, the location of the language, the time zone and the network state (WiFi and so on), the hard disk, the CPU, and the battery use, etc.

Wrapping Things Up

The information above only verifies repeatedly that China is a surveillance giant, which not only keeps an eye on its own citizens but even hijacks valuable tools like VPNs to gain access to the data of billions of users around the world, regardless of which country they are located in.

The citizens of the country don’t have any choice but to comply with the Chinese governments invasive laws and activities. However, if you reside in a different country, make sure to avoid downloading/installing any programs with ties to China.

It may not seem like a big thing to many. Most even say, “I’m not a terrorist, why do I have to be worried about my data being monitored?” Realize this issue is bigger than us all, and anyone who goes online deserves the right to enjoy privacy and anonymity!

Even the U.N. has declared that mass surveillance is a violation of human rights, as it increases the cases of arbitrary arrest and detention. Domestic safeguards need to be implemented in line with the international human rights law, but that can only happen when people take such things seriously.

What do you think about the proliferation of Chinese apps into the market as a secret tool for mass surveillance? What are the necessary steps you suggest to be taken in preventing incessant and illegal Chinese apps data collection around the world?

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