China Fights lockdown protests by targeting Smartphones

According to lawyers and protesters, authorities in cities across China are using advanced surveillance methods to curb anti-block demonstrations. Multiple sources told DW that in big cities like Shangai, police used to check people’s phones on the streets and subways indiscriminately Twitter, Instagram, etc., to be removed immediately.

Others say the police called and the phone was searched by authorities. “Police have warned us not to use Telegram and asked us to stop sharing information about the pandemic via software,” said a protester surnamed Lin who declined to provide his full name for security reasons. “I was not stopped in the street. I suspect the police found out I was using his Telegram. He called me twice. My father also got threatening calls from them,’ he told DW.

Protestors suspect smartphones are being hacked

Shengsheng Wang, a lawyer who has provided legal assistance to more than 20 protesters across China, said police arrested people and confiscated phones. “The priority for the police is to gain access to the protester’s phones,” she said. “Although some of them were still unable to get their phones back from the police even after being released.”

According to Wang, some protesters in Guanzhou told him that after he provided his personal identification number to the police, there were outside attempts to log into their Telegram accounts. She told DW: “Attempts to attack happened while they had their phones, and since the same thing happened to some of the protesters, it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence.

China protests

The other protesters in Beijing (that is the capital city of China) told Wang that they received calls from the police after they briefly stopped at the site of a protest, without having been confronted by the authorities.

“They don’t understand why they and their friends were all summoned by the police the day after stopping at the protest,” she said. It is reasonable suspicion that police may have used surveillance technology to locate the phones of protesters at a particular location at a particular time.’ Wang is also temporarily banned from sending group messages or sharing his status on the Chinese messaging app WeChat.

“I also avoid calls from my law firm because I know they want to get me a message from the local court,” she said.

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 think tank on cybersecurity, told DW that Chinese police might know which phones are in a particular location at an exact time.

“Because China is a surveillance country and has little interest in the rule of law of human rights, it is not difficult for them,” he said.

“A fairly simple way is to go to the telecom company and ask them which phone number is connected to which cell tower at what time. It may be inaccurate and misleading, but if your goal is to intimidate protesters and not get convicted in court, that should be fine,” he added.

Lawyer Wang said most of the protesters summoned by police and asked for evidence were not at legal risk.

They have certainly been ‘educated’ and told they should stop participating in similar protests in the future,” she said. “If there is enough evidence to prove that they are an important source of information or the organizer of certain protests, they could face criminal charges.”

Other analysts say that because the protests are so spontaneous, most participants are not willing to participate first. “Some young protesters have never participated in protests like this before, so they have no experience with it, ” said Yaqui Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. One way to protect yourself is to delete sensitive apps. Instead of relying on one particular messaging app, they should also consider diversifying the apps they use to communicate with others.”

While most protesters would certainly fear the possible consequences of joining other protests after being summoned by the police, HRW’s Wang said the crackdown could encourage others. Some people may never join protests again, but others can become real activists. All activists have to go through these trials and tribulations because no one is naturally brave.

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