Software extracts emails, texts and contacts and could be used to track movements
Chinese border police are secretly installing surveillance apps on the phones of visitors and downloading personal information as part of the governments intensive scrutiny of the remote Xinjiang region, the Guardian can reveal.
The Chinese government has curbed freedoms in the provincefor the local Muslim population, installing facial recognition cameras on streets and in mosques and reportedly forcing residents to download software that searches their phones.
An investigation by the Guardian and international partners has found that travellers are being targeted when they attempt to enter the region from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Border guards are taking their phones and secretly installing an app that extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself.
Tourists say they have not been warned by authorities in advance or told about what the software is looking for, or that their information is being taken.
The investigation, with partners including Sddeutsche Zeitung and the New York Times, has found that people using the remote Irkeshtam border crossing into the country are routinely having their phones screened by guards.
Edin Omanovi, of the campaign group Privacy International, described the findings as highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp.
Analysis by the Guardian, academics and cybersecurity experts suggests the app, designed by a Chinese company,searches Android phones against a huge list of content that the authorities view as problematic.
This includes a variety of terms associated with Islamist extremism, including Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaidain the Arabian Peninsula, and various weapons operation manuals.
However, the surveillance app also searches for information on a range of other material from fasting during Ramadan to literature by the Dalai Lama, and music by a Japanese metal band called Unholy Grave.
About 100 million people visit the Xinjiang region every year, according to Chinese authorities. These include domestic and foreign tourists, and most enter from elsewhere in the country.
The Irkeshtam crossing is Chinas most westerly border and is used by traders and tourists, some following the historic Silk Road.
There are several stages to crossing, and at one travellers are made to unlock and hand over their phones and other devices such as cameras. The devices are then taken away to a separate room and returned some time later.
The iPhones are plugged into a reader that scans them, while Android phones have the app installed to do the same job.
It seems that in most cases the app is uninstalled before the phone is returned, but some travellers have found it still on their phone.
It is unclear where all extracted information goes and for how long it is stored.
While there is no evidence that the data is used to track people later in their journeys, the information it collects would allow the authorities to locate someone if used together with details of the phones location.