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By Pei Li and Cate Cadell
BEIJING (Reuters)

It can crack your smartphone password in seconds, rip personal data from call and messaging apps, and peruse your contact book

The Chinese-made XDH-CF-5600 scanner – or “mobile phone sleuth”, as sales staff described it when touting its claimed features – was one of hundreds of surveillance gadgets on display at a recent police equipment fair in Beijing.

The China International Exhibition on Police Equipment is something of a one-stop shop for China’s police forces looking to arm up with the latest in “black tech” – a term widely used to refer to cutting-edge surveillance gadgets.

The fair underscores the extent to which China’s security forces are using technology to monitor and punish behavior that runs counter to the ruling Communist Party.

 

A police robot patrols before the third plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing
A police robot patrols before the third plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, China March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

 

That sort of monitoring – both offline and online – is stoking concerns from human rights groups about the development of a nationwide surveillance system to quell dissent.

 

The Ministry of Public Security, which hosted the Beijing fair, did not respond to a request for comment

At the fair, Reuters also saw stalls offering cute-looking robots, equipped with artificial intelligence systems to detect criminals, as well as an array of drones, smart glasses, DNA database software and facial-recognition cameras.

At the fair, which is held annually, most buyers appeared to be local Chinese police, though some global firms attended, selling mainly vehicles and aircraft. Ford Motor Co, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Airbus SE had cars and model helicopters on display.

The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It is not unusual for western companies to sell vehicles to overseas police forces.

 

Police robot that can scan faces is seen on display at the China International Exhibition on Police Equipment in Beijing
A police robot that can scan faces is seen on display at the China International Exhibition on Police Equipment in Beijing, China May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Pei Li

 

It was not possible to verify all the claims made about the products at the fair, including the XDH-CF-5600 scanner, which is made by Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Co Ltd, a Chinese provider of security products and services.

Scanners like the XDH-CF-5600 exist in other markets around the world, including the United States, but their use is contentious, especially regarding the forcible extraction of data from mobile phone devices.

Chinese firms are rushing to meet the growing demand from the country’s security services, fuelling a surveillance tech arms race as companies look to outdo each others’ tracking and monitoring capabilities.

 

Western firms have played little overt role so far in China’s surveillance boom

Beijing-based Hisign Technology said its desktop and portable phone scanners can retrieve even deleted data from over 90 mobile applications on smart phones, including overseas platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

A big selling point of the technology, according to one policeman from the restive far western region of Xinjiang who was eyeing a Hisign scanner, was its claimed ability to get data from Apple Inc’s iOS operating system, used in products like the widely popular iPhone.

“We are actually using these kinds of scanners in Xinjiang already, but I am interested in this one as it claims to be more successful with iOS phones than other brands,” said the policeman, surnamed Gu, who traveled 3,000 kilometers to attend the fair. He declined to provide his given name.

The iPhone‘s iOS system is seen by many analysts as the most secure operating system. A handful of firms in Israel and the United States have been able to crack into the iOS system, according to media reports. That ability is often shrouded in secrecy, however.

 

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