By Cate Cadell
Filip Liu, a 31-year-old software developer from Beijing, was traveling in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang when he was pulled to one side by police as he got off a bus
The officers took Liu’s iPhone, hooked it up to a handheld device that looked like a laptop and told him they were “checking his phone for illegal information“.
Liu’s experience in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, is not uncommon in a region that has been wracked by separatist violence and a crackdown by security forces.
But such surveillance technologies, tested out in the laboratory of Xinjiang, are now quietly spreading across China.
Government procurement documents collected by Reuters and rare insights from officials show the technology Liu encountered in Xinjiang is encroaching into cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
Police stations in almost every province have sought to buy the data-extraction devices for smartphones since the beginning of 2016, coinciding with a sharp rise in spending on internal security and a crackdown on dissent, the data show.
The documents provide a rare glimpse into the numbers behind China’s push to arm security forces with high-tech monitoring tools as the government clamps down on dissent.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Public Security Bureau, which oversee China’s high-tech security projects, did not respond to requests for comment.
The scanners are hand-held or desktop devices that can break into smartphones and extract and analyze contact lists, photos, videos, social media posts and email
Hand-held devices allow police to quickly check the content of phones on the street. Liu, the Beijing software developer, said the police were able to review his data on the spot. They apparently didn’t find anything objectionable as he was not detained.
The data Reuters analyzed includes requests from 171 police stations across 32 out of 33 official mainland provinces, regions and municipalities, and appears to show only a portion of total spending.
The data shows over 129 million yuan ($19 million) in budgeting or spending on the equipment since the beginning of 2016, with amounts accelerating in 2017 and 2018.
In Shanghai, China’s gleaming international port city, two districts budgeted around 600,000 yuan each to purchase phone scanners and data-ripping tools. Beijing’s railway police budgeted a similar amount, the documents show.
“Right now, as I understand it, only two provinces in the whole country don’t use these,” said a sales representative at Zhongke Ronghui Security Technology Co Ltd, a Shaanxi-based firm that produces the XDH-5200A, one of the scanners detailed in several police procurement documents.
The representative said police stations across the whole country could consult a centralized repository of extracted data. “Almost every police station will have the equipment.”
Chinese-made devices cost as little as about 10,000 yuan for smaller ones, to hundreds of thousands of yuan for more sophisticated ones, according to prices seen at a police equipment fair in Beijing earlier this year.
The scanners have not been immediately apparent in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
At recent checks at Beijing bus and train stations, and the heavily guarded Tiananmen square area, there were no signs of the devices. But a police officer at Beijing Railway Station confirmed they “have access when needed” to smartphone forensic technology.
These sorts of scanners are used in countries like the United States but they remain contentious and security forces need to go through a lengthy legal process to be able to forcibly break into a suspect’s phone.
In China, while a number of firms say they have the ability to crack many phones, police are generally able to get users to hand over their passwords, experts say.
The procurement documents show some police stations asked for tools that can pull data from a phone user’s accounts on Twitter , Facebook and its WhatsApp chat service, Alphabet Inc’s Google Chrome browser and Japan’s Line messaging platform.
A May 25 filing from a customs bureau in Beijing budgeted 5.7 million yuan for smartphone forensic tools from two providers, Meiya Pico and Resonant Ltd. It listed messaging platforms and “overseas” apps the devices could read.
“Basic content collection functions” must include “mobile phone passwords, address books, call history, SMS records, MMS, pictures, audio and video data, calendars, memos and mobile app data,” the document said.
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