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China might monitor Tibetans using anti-fraud software


An application developed in China to combat fraudulent activities has the potential to be used to monitor individuals belonging to the Tibetan community.

The analysis conducted by Tibet research groups revealed that the application can track and record users’ text messages and internet browsing history and access their data.

Furthermore, they claimed that some Tibetans were being coerced into downloading the application.

Rights organisations assert that restrictions in Tibet have escalated in recent years, further constricting an already tightly regulated region of China.

In recent years, there has been an increase in official monitoring and censorship by authorities, especially during the pandemic.

Regions of political sensitivity, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, have been subject to particular scrutiny. Beijing has maintained a cautious attitude towards "secessionism" in these regions. Still, it has intensified its efforts to suppress such movements under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who has prioritised national unity.

The recently published analysis by the research network Turquoise Roof and the rights organisation Tibet Watch focuses on the contentious National Anti-Fraud Centre application introduced in 2021.

Although the study did not provide concrete proof of the app explicitly targeting Tibetans, it said that the software is in line with comprehensive monitoring procedures and might potentially assist the Chinese government in exerting control over them.

The National Anti-Fraud Centre is a scam protection application to identify suspected fraudulent text messages and phone calls. Additionally, it enables users to report fraud and promptly get assistance from the authorities. China has been grappling with a surge of online and phone fraud in recent years.

Turquoise Roof performed a forensic study of the application and determined that some features may be manipulated for monitoring.

The application can oversee incoming text messages; get call records, and record internet browsing histories. It can also record users' inputs, including passwords, and capture images, enabling it to collect visual information about users and their surroundings.

The research said that the facial recognition verification capability could be used to gather a significant amount of data to improve the surveillance and monitoring of Tibetans on a large scale.

One method is convincing Tibetans to download the application. Last year, a refugee informed Tibet Watch that he was stopped at a police checkpoint on his return home from school and instructed to download the application on his mobile device.

Shortly after its release, there were several complaints over the obligatory installation of the software, which was reportedly downloaded on around 200 million mobile devices.

According to the Financial Times, several local government organisations mandated their staff to use the app. In contrast, others required them to download it to enrol their children into schools or apply for identity cards.

The publication also interviewed users who claimed to have been contacted by the authorities after the app identified their visits to international financial news websites, such as Bloomberg.

Turquoise Roof discovered that Chinese authorities were storing an extensive database of Tibetan people who were considered a risk to stability, as shown in official procurement documents. The database used software developed by the American company Oracle.

They said that it was "reasonable to hypothesise" that any data gathered by the anti-fraud application may be used in this database.

The study recommended that the Chinese government implement more robust privacy safeguards and investigate allegations of coercion related to app downloads.

It also urged foreign corporations and governments to refrain from supplying resources to China's mass monitoring initiatives.

Since deploying soldiers in 1950 to assert its authority over Tibet, Beijing has maintained strict control over the territory.

China restricts the freedom of movement for Tibetans by exerting control over their passports and closely surveils their communications with the external world, as per activists' claims.

Tibet Watch has recorded many incidents of Tibetans being arrested due to their posts on the widely used messaging app WeChat. Additionally, there have been occasions when accounts and terms considered politically sensitive were blocked or removed.

In addition to Tibet, China has notably used extensive monitoring methods in Xinjiang to exert control over the Uyghur population.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch discovered that authorities in Xinjiang were using a surveillance platform and application to oversee the activities and information of individuals.

In that particular year, a probe conducted by many Western publications discovered that border authorities were implementing monitoring applications on the mobile devices of individuals visiting the area.

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