Asia Business Channel

Chinese border agents are searching through traveler’s phones and computers


Lulu Yilun Chen, a reporter for Bloomberg in Hong Kong has reported that Hong Kong travelers to China are being asked to unlock their smartphones so that Chinese immigration staff can examine and record chat messages and social media of travelers. This is seen as a move by Chinese authorities to prevent Hong Kong’s 11-week protests from spreading to the mainland.

According to Chen’s report, a fund manager was ordered to unlock his phone at the Shenzhen border earlier this week. According to the fund manager, immigration officials inspected his Whatsapp and WeChat apps and his photos, and he was asked how he had obtained pictures of the protests and why he had stored them. Chen’s report also notes that “Officials at all Chinese ports of entry were told to proactively check the phones of suspicious-looking individuals entering from Hong Kong and delete pictures related to the protests, a person familiar with the directive said.“

The South China Morning Post has also reported that 10 people have said their phones had been checked while they were crossing into mainland China from Hong Kong.

Theses are only the latest reports of Chinese immigration officials examining the phones and computers of business people and non-business travelers. Business travelers going to China have been warned for almost 10 years to strip their computers of all confidential business information and to take only files necessary for the business they want to conduct in China.

In the era of smartphones, when people often take a smartphone with them rather than a laptop computer, the same security concerns apply. Business executives who often travel between Hong Kong and the mainland are leaving their everyday phones at home and are buying dedicated phones for when they are in China. Some executives go even further to protect their privacy by buying burner phones that they throw away after each trip.

The phone checks add to signs that Beijing is stepping up efforts to control the flow of information on the protests amid fears it could inspire similar unrest in China or embolden pro-independence forces in Taiwan. Domestic media coverage has been tightly controlled, and many cities are keeping a closer eye on citizens traveling to the former British colony.

Bankers who travel frequently between Hong Kong and mainland China are swapping their personal phones and laptops for new devices or ones that have been wiped clean, according to three financial professionals in the city, who asked not to be named because of the security risk.

Travelers who are planning to go to “sensitive” areas of China, such as the Xinjiang region, should be aware that Chinese border agents are forcing foreigners to install Android malware on their smartphones that is capable of extracting audio, text and video messages and files.

According to cybersecurity specialists, in addition to extracting the user’s messages, the malware also scans the device for a specific set of files and software of interest to China. The software collects as much user information as possible, such as calendar entries, phone contacts, call log and text messages and then sends all the information to a server, controlled by the Chinese authorities. After sending the information to the server the software deletes itself automatically from the device that it was installed in.

Global geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor recommends that travelers keep the following points in mind when traveling:

The Stratfor Traveler’s Guide to Data Security

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