A widely downloaded Chinese propaganda app that quizzes users on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) heroes and military achievements might be “studying them right back” through data collection and potential security breaches, an Internet freedom campaign group has said.
The app — called Xuexi Qiangguo or “Study to Make China Strong” — has accumulated 130 million users since its launch by the CCP’s propaganda arm in January, according to state media in August.
Marketed as an education tool, it awards points for sharing articles and watching videos such as speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
However, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) — a US government-funded group that campaigns for Internet freedom — said that users also provide a plethora of data to the app, including location and e-mails.
OTF contracted the independent German tech firm Cure53 to study the app.
While the CCP advertises the app as “a way for citizens to prove their loyalty and study their country, the app’s maintainers are studying them right back,” OTF wrote on its Web site.
The app’s terms and conditions also say that users might have to hand over more personal information — such as fingerprints and ID numbers — depending on the features or third-party tools that they want to access.
The Chinese government has come under increasing scrutiny for high-tech surveillance — from facial recognition-enabled security cameras to apps used by police to extract personal information from smartphones at checkpoints.
Although “Study to Make China Strong” is an education app, Cure53 said that it contains code that could run “arbitrary commands” — reminiscent of a backdoor — on certain smartphones.
The app “maintains a level of access that no app would normally have over a user’s device,” OTF said.
The investigation, which was conducted in August, looked at the Android version of the app, partly because of its market dominance, OTF technology director Sarah Aoun said.
“This is just another way of expanding that digital control through a very intrusive app that is being pushed onto its citizens,” Aoun said.
The CCP’s propaganda arm, which is responsible for the app, did not respond to requests for comment.
Dozens of provincial and county governments across China reportedly held workshops earlier this year to promote the app.
Chinese journalists will also have to use the app for online press accreditation exams later this month and next month, a notice last week from the Chinese State Council said.
“It is unusual to see so much data gathered for an education app,” said Jane Manchun Wong (黃文津), who reverse-engineers apps for security vulnerabilities and unreleased features. “It’s like reading a book about the great nation, but the book somehow searches your home.”
The app also scans for 960 applications — including gaming, travel and chat apps — appearing as if “attempting to find which popular apps are installed on the phone,” Cure53 said.
A spokesperson at DingTalk, an enterprise chat platform that was used to build the app, said that it had “no ‘backdoor code’ or scanning issues,” but OTF said that users’ data and their smartphones could be further jeopardized if the code that “amounts to a backdoor” runs successfully.
This code only affects smartphones on which users have installed software that gives them the ability to modify the device’s code, but apps can abuse this level of privilege to take over a user’s device.
“The code they found is creepy,” French security researcher Baptiste Robert said, but cautioned against the use of the word “backdoor.”
The investigation also found “no evidence” that the code was used during testing, with Cure53 concluding that “further investigation” was needed to determine how it was used.
The code “can raise suspicion,” Robert said, but to conclude that there is “vast espionage from China is complicated.”
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