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China accused of keyword-based surveillance of Uighurs

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China loves keyword-based surveillance, as it is demonstrating at home when it keeps online communications in check by monitoring for “sensitive words.”

Now, a report citing western sources says that China has extended this spying principle to text messages and call record data exchanged and collected beyond its borders, allegedly by hacking telecommunications operators in several countries.

According to Reuters Beijing’s activities are aimed at keeping a close eye on members of the Uighur minority as they travel across Asia to reach Turkey.

China says that it’s problem with the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, is the risk of them engaging in terrorism; and the reason to track those traveling to Turkey is the fear they could be going to this country as a springboard from which to join terrorists in Syria and Iran.

But western governments and human rights groups have long been accusing Beijing of violating the minority’s human rights, including by imposing stringent online and other types of surveillance onto this population inside China itself.

And now several Chinese hacking outfits are accused of breaking into telecommunications companies in Malaysia, Thailand, India, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, but Reuters said it didn’t know which companies these were. China has denied these accusations, while the governments of these countries had no comment.

But intelligence officials and security consultants spoke for the agency claim the intrusions had taken place. According to them, China is going straight for the source of phone communications, instead of targeting individuals as an easy way to bypass encryption and have access to vast amounts of data. And China is not alone in this, the report suggests, nor is the practice new.

As for the allegations explored in the Reuters report, based on a report by US cybersecurity company Volexity, the sources said that while text messages are monitored for keywords that point to terrorist activity, call detail records (CDR) provide spies with location, via cell tower data, as well as users’ contacts and sources of incoming and outgoing calls.

Put together, this provides “a window into someone’s life,” the agency quoted Amit Serper, of US-Israeli security firm Cybereason.

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