If you’re a member of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang, you’re probably used to China’s high level of surveillance that many other countries would find Orwellian.
Whereas many of us are concerned that law enforcement agencies might seek to weaken or open backdoors in secure messaging products running on our smartphones, the Chinese have gone one step further demanding that some eight million Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, install a spyware app known as JingWang Weishi their Android smartphones.
JingWang (“clean internet” in Chinese) doesn’t just block access to specific websites. It also searches your Android phone for “illegal” images, audio recordings, and videos, and can upload them to an external server – alongside identifying details of your phone such as its IMEI number, model, phone number, and manufacturer.
And if you think you can simply avoid installing the app, think again. If police find in a spot-check that you don’t have JingWang installed, you could face up to ten days in detention.
It’s frightening to think how easily the Chinese authorities could roll out such mass surveillance across its entire population, or other oppressive regimes might seek to something similar to spy upon a particular ethnic group.
Inevitably, the Chinese government’s demand that Xinjiang’s Muslim minority install the app has prompted security researchers to take a close look at the JingWang app.
And sure enough, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) has just published a report that claims JingWang is itself a security risk, because it fails to encrypt the collected data which it transfers to a server based in China.
“Nothing is transmitted from the individuals device to the receiving server over HTTPS — all in plaintext via HTTP — and updates are unsigned. This means all the data the app collects is transmitted to the unknown entity on the receiving end in a way that allows someone with a trivial amount of technical knowledge to intercept and potentially manipulate”
In short, a man-in-the-middle attack could manipulate the data being transmitted and received, open opportunities for someone to read sensitive information or potentially inject false file metadata to inform the authorities.
Further still, the lack of signed updates means that an attacker could trick a user into installing a malicious APK onto their Android phone, believing that it is the genuine JingWang surveillance app.
Big Brother, it seems, is only interested in exfiltrating information from a targeted ethnic section of the population in this corner of China, and shows little interest in protecting citizens’ information or increasing their data security.
The Uyghur Muslim population of Xinjiang aren’t the first to be told they must install spyware on their smartphone, and they’re not even the first to discover that the surveillance software they have had pushed upon them contains its own security holes.
As more countries adopt high-tech surveillance technology to spy upon their people, we’re not only at risk of stepping into an Orwellian nightmare. There’s also a very real danger that other malicious actors might exploit flaws in the software to steal personal information and spy upon the innocent.