Anti-Fraud App Tracks Access to Foreign Websites, Deepening Surveillance Concerns

One of the hottest new apps in China over the past few months came not from private developers in booming tech hubs, but straight out of the Ministry of Public Security. Called “National Anti-Fraud Center,” the app was launched as part of Xi Jinping’s campaign against telecom and internet fraud. Its popularity soared due to creative and sometimes coercive promotion, but many fear the app’s wide-ranging surveillance capabilities and invasion of privacy. A recent investigation by Sun Yu at the Financial Times described how the app flagged visitors to foreign websites, and alerted police:

Chinese police are using a new anti-fraud app installed on more than 200m mobile phones to identify and question people who have viewed overseas financial news sites, according to individuals summoned by the authorities.

The app was launched in March by the public security ministry’s National Anti-Fraud Center and blocks suspicious phone calls and reports malware. Police said it was needed to combat a surge in fraud, often perpetrated by overseas operations managed by Chinese and Taiwanese nationals.

[…] One Shanghai-based user told the Financial Times he was contacted by police after accessing a US financial news service. He was also asked whether he had contacts abroad and regularly visited overseas websites.

[…] A second user in eastern Shandong province said police called him on four consecutive days after the app showed he had visited what it labelled “highly dangerous” overseas information providers, including Bloomberg. [Source]

Coco Feng at the South China Morning Post explained how one police officer utilized social media to promote the app to millions of viewers

A police officer named Chen Guoping further popularised it by co-hosting live-streaming sessions with other influencers on these platforms. The feature is named “lianmai”, or “connecting the mic”, a popular function where two broadcasters are randomly paired and talk on one screen to the watchers of both, which helps promote both channels.

Chen, a cyberspace security police officer based in the Chinese city Qinhuangdao in northern Hebei province, has managed to show up in many influencers’ live-streaming channels, giving him access to hundreds of millions of viewers. Chinese short-video platforms randomly pair two broadcasters if they turn on the “lianmai” feature around the same time.

On Friday alone, Chen’s exposure through the “lianmai” function surpassed 100 million views, according to China News Service. The policeman now has nearly 3.7 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and 1.5 million on Kuaishou.

Chen’s account on WeChat, the social media platform operated by Tencent Holdings, became so hot that it got automatically blocked. Tencent said in a statement that the account showed “abnormal behaviour” of adding many new followers within a short period of time and triggering many complaints from users. Tencent has since unblocked his account after verification. [Source]

Zhu Shenshen at Shanghai Daily’s Shine News described the police officer’s unique marketing tactics, which occasionally made use of online cosplayers: 

Policeman Chen links to various online broadcasters and influencers. Some of them are cosplay characters, such as Gonggong or Eunuch and Monkey King Sun Wukong, who are well known in Chinese literature and history.

[…] On Douyin, a cost-host video between Policeman Chen and a Gonggong cosplayer attracted 1.26 million likes and 167,000 comments. And it has been forwarded 643,000 times.

[…] “It’s beyond my imagination to see a serious topic in such an interesting way. I can’t forget the app name now,” said a Douyin user. [Source]

Other marketing efforts flooded public spaces with promotional messaging related to the app, reported Chen Du from PingWest: 

In one community in Ningbo city of Zhejiang Province, the local police department promoted the anti-fraud app by putting up a large red banner that half-jokingly, half bitterly says: “In March, several local ladies thought that click farming could make them money, but instead got scammed for more than 20,000 RMB. Come on, it’s the year 2021. You still believe click farming is profitable? Well apparently some did.”

In a groceries market in Hangzhou, local citizens were surprised to find out that the chicken eggs they were handed with were props and had printings on the shell that said: “internet scamming is so rampant, even this egg is fake.”

Also, in Hangzhou, the police deployed SWAT teams onto the street–not for catching bad guys though–but forgiving those who have installed the anti-fraud app onsite an opportunity to take pictures with them. Meanwhile, in Shenzhen, police allowed citizens to pet their K9 unit dogs if they agreed to scan the QR code and download the app. [Source]

However, not everyone has been pleased with the app. As Viola Zhou at Vice documented, many users were forced to install the app, which collects a great deal of personal information

A reviewer called the app a “product of power abuse” last week, adding that he was only allowed into his residential compound in the southern city of Shenzhen after downloading the app. 

“I couldn’t get vaccinated without downloading the app,” another person said on April 2. “This kind of violent enforcement really left one speechless.” 

The app has received more than 7,000 mostly negative reviews by Tuesday after it was launched in March. Several users say they have been coerced into installing the app by their employers, patrolling police officers, or even their children’s schools. 

[…] Users are required to enter their names and national ID numbers as well as have their faces scanned when registering on the app. Officials have also reminded people to allow the app to access all their photos, texts, and contacts. [Source]

The anti-fraud app joins a growing list of Chinese state-sponsored apps with worrisome privacy practices. In 2019, the study app 学习强国 (Xuexi Qiangguo) rolled out to further disseminate Xi Jinping Thought to the masses, hundreds of millions of whom downloaded it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. An Open Technology Fund investigation found that the Android version of the app left a gaping backdoor allowing the CCP “complete administrator-level access to a user’s phone.” In 2020, the Chinese government produced the now ubiquitous “health code” app that all citizens must download to access public services and transportation. This app has raised numerous concerns over surveillance and data privacy. In Xinjiang, the lives of millions are tracked through government apps under the guise of combatting terrorism.

Recently, the Chinese government has taken various steps to mold its domestic cyberspace into a purportedly safer environment for users, in ways that simultaneously protect consumers without limiting state surveillance capabilities. In late August, the National People’s Congress passed China’s first comprehensive data privacy law, which in some respects mirrors the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, but many are skeptical about whether it will provide more than a cover for continued data collection by the state security apparatus

As for the anti-fraud app, the Global Times pushed back against recent criticism in Western media, claiming that no one had been surveilled or “summoned” by the police as a result of the app, and boasting about the app’s positive impact. Summarizing the concerns of each side—protecting users versus protecting privacy—Alice Su at the Los Angeles Times highlighted the alleged foreign threat and surveillance overreach by the government

According to a 2020 report on countering digital fraud by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank that reports to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, more than 95% of digital scammers contact their targets from IP addresses outside mainland China.

[…] The police anti-fraud app seems to do exactly what the government is trying to stop tech companies from doing. It requires that users submit their phone number, real name, ID number, home address and facial recognition data. It also requires access to the device’s contacts, messages, apps, photos, visited websites, music, videos, recordings, social media accounts, transactions, calls, microphone, camera, screenshots, location and storage. [Source]



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