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China fights lockdown protests by targeting smartphones

William Yang in Taipei
December 1, 2022

Beijing's vast surveillance apparatus is being used to track and intimidate protesters. Several people told DW they suspect their phones were hacked.

A man speaks on a phone in front of a police bus
Protesters have said authorities are tracking their movements using appsImage: Koki Kataoka/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

Authorities in cities across China are using sophisticated surveillance methods to dampen anti-lockdown demonstrations, according to lawyers and protesters.

Several sources told DW that police in large cities like Shanghai have been randomly checking people's phones on the street or on subways. Police have demanded people provide personal information and immediately remove apps like Telegram, Twitter or Instagram.

Others have said they were called by police and had their phones searched by authorities.

"Police warned me not to use Telegram and asked me to stop sharing information about the pandemic through the software," said one protester with the surname Lin, who declined to be identified by his full name due to security concerns.

"I wasn't stopped on the street. I suspect the police may have detected that I've been using Telegram. I received two separate calls from the police, warning me not to share anything about the pandemic or the protests. My father also received a threatening call from them," he told DW.

Protesters suspect smartphones are being hacked

Shengsheng Wang, a lawyer who has been providing legal assistance to more than 20 protesters across China, said police have been detaining people and confiscating phones.

"The police's priority has been to access protesters' phones," she said. "While some of them were able to get their phones back after they were released, others still couldn't get their phones back from the police even after they were released."

According to Wang, several protesters in Guangzhou told her that after providing personal ID numbers to police, there saw external attempts to log into their Telegram accounts.

"The hacking attempts happened when they had their phones, and since the same thing happened to several protesters, it doesn't seem like a pure coincidence," she told DW.

Other protesters in Beijing told Wang that they received calls from police after briefly stopping at the site of a protest, without having been confronted by authorities.

"They didn't understand why they and their friends were all summoned by the police one day after they stopped by the protest," she said. "One reasonable suspicion is that the police may have used surveillance technology to determine the location of protesters' phones at a specific place and at a specific time." 

Wang has also been temporarily banned from sending group messages or sharing status on the Chinese messaging app WeChat.

"I've also been avoiding calls from my law firm because I know they want to pass the message from the local judicial department to me," she said.

A screenshot of anti-lockdown protests in China, as a crowd of people stand near a destroyed testing tent
On Tuesday, protesters in Guangzhou destroyed a COVID testing site Image: REUTERS

'China is a surveillance state with little regard for rule of law'

Lokman Tsui, a fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity think tank, told DW it's possible for Chinese police to find out what phones were at a particular location at a particular time.

"Because China is a surveillance state with little regard for rule of law or human rights, this is not difficult for them," he said.

"One fairly easy way is to go to the telecommunication company and ask them which phone number connected to which cell tower at what time. This can be imprecise and produce errors, but if your goal is to intimidate protesters, and not get a conviction in court, then this would fit the bill," he added.

Lawyer Wang said most protesters summoned by police and asked to provide evidence do not yet face any legal risks.

"They have definitely been 'educated' and told that they should stop joining similar protests in the future," she said. "If there is sufficient evidence to prove they are the source of important information or organizers of certain protests, they could face criminal charges."

Other analysts have said that since the protests have been very spontaneous in nature, most participants weren't prepared to join in advance.

"Some of the young protesters have never participated in demonstrations like this before, so they don't have the experience of knowing how to protect themselves," said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Even some experienced protesters in China will still be arrested by the police, which shows that it's hard to guard against all the risks. There will be different degrees of risk, and they should try their best to protect themselves in those circumstances," she said.

Patrick Poon, a researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law at Meiji University in Japan, said Chinese citizens who have participated in protests or who are still joining demonstrations should consider removing sensitive apps from their phones.

"One way to protect themselves is to delete the sensitive apps," he said. "Instead of relying on one particular messaging app, they should also consider diversifying the apps they use to communicate with others."

While most protesters will certainly be afraid of the potential consequences of joining more protests after they were summoned by the police, Wang from HRW said the crackdown could embolden others.

"Some people may never participate in a demonstration again, but others may become real activists," she said. "All activists need to go through these trials and challenges because no one is naturally brave."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn