China’s most popular mobile app that teaches citizens about their leader, Xi Jinping, and Communist Party doctrine may have backdoors allowing commands that enable authorities to covertly obtain a user’s personal information, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has warned.
The app, “Study Xi, strengthen the country,” provides access to propaganda documents about the party and president and tests the user’s understanding of regime propaganda with quizzes to earn points and prizes.
However, it can also make calls, modify files, download apps and switch on the device’s microphone among other potentially threatening features, the non-profit press freedom advocates said on its website. The supposedly intrusive features were revealed in an analysis of the Xi propaganda tool conducted in September by German cybersecurity firm Cure 53, RSF said.
The app was developed e-commerce giant Alibaba for the Chinese Communist Party and released in February.
“We highly recommend journalists to avoid downloading this app that can compromise their security and that of their sources,” said Cédric Alviani, head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) East Asia Bureau
“If it is absolutely necessary to install it, we advise to do so on a specific device dedicated to this sole purpose and which does not contain any sensitive information,” he added.
According to the Cure 53 report, conducted on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, which campaigns on human rights issues, the app has “extensive logging” abilities and appears to try to list popular apps someone has installed on their phone.
“The application is capable of collecting and managing vast amounts of very specific data,” the report said.
It can also weaken encryption capabilities on a user’s device making it easier for authorities to crack their security.
“The app contains code resembling a back door, which is able to run arbitrary commands with super-user privileges,” said the report.
There’s no reason to have such privileges unless “you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be,” Open Technology Fund research director Adam Lynn told The Washington Post.
The government denies the app has the monitoring functions listed in the analysis and is being used to spy on its citizens.
Chinese journalists, meanwhile, will be required to pass a compulsory loyalty test on Xi and Communist Party teachings through this application by the end of the year in order to obtain or renew their press credentials.
The number of downloads of the app may have already exceeded 600 million, RSF says.
China ranks 177th out of 180 countries and territories listed on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.