An app promoted by the Chinese Communist Party appears to let the government spy on the data on more than 100 million cellphones. An investigation by Open Tech Fund, who partnered with German cybersecurity firm Cure53, found that the app, called “Study the Great Nation,” contained code that gave administrator-level access to a user’s phone. The app can be downloaded on all types of smartphones, including Apple and Android.
The app, launched in January, contains news articles and videos meant to bolster the Communist Party’s ideological control over the Chinese population. Much of the content revolves around party leader Xi Jinping’s activities or his ideology. Users can earn points for reading articles and commenting on them, and the app has a leader board showing how users are faring in quizzes.
The government has been promoting the app aggressively this year. The Communist Party has issued directives to its members to download the app, as have many workplaces. Campaigns have also been launched on social networks such as WeChat and Weibo to encourage people to install the app. According to state media, the app had more than 100 million registered users by April.
The analysis of the app showed that the hidden code provides the government with “superuser” privileges to any phone that has downloaded the app. This enables authorities to retrieve messages and photos, browse contacts and internet history, download any software, modify files and data, and activate an audio recorder inside the device. The app collects and sends detailed log reports on a daily basis, containing vast amounts of user data and app activity.
A cybersecurity law enacted two years ago required all tech companies to share user data with the government. A review of the terms and conditions of the app show that users must agree to allow access to their information and functions to use the app. Users must sign up with their real names and cellphone numbers, creating an easily followed trail since all phones in China must be registered to a national ID card number.