China has allegedly been monitoring Uighurs, a Muslim-centered ethnic minority in the country, since as early as 2013 using hackers to build malware to invade the citizens' smartphones.
The claim states the observation was done before Chinese police officers set up surveillance cameras and sent the Uighurs to detention camps in the western region of Xinjiang, as reported by The New York Times.
The practice persists until today and is part of a broader but hidden attempt to gather personal data from devices that contain their information.
Lookout, a mobile security firm, discovered ties between eight different type of malware, some of which were previously known. The company reveals how certain groups affiliated with the Chinese government infiltrated Android phones that the majority of the Muslim Uighur society use on a much larger scale than previously thought.
The findings suggest that the hacking campaign was China's frontline effort on monitoring the Uighurs, which later evolved to taking blood samples and other personal information to essentially turn the region into a virtual police state. The attempts also revealed how far China went to observing Uighurs who have fled internationally to as many as 15 countries.
The perpetrators of the data-gathering hid their tools inside special keyboards that Uighurs later used-the hidden equipment disguised themselves as third-party website apps to avoid detection from their victims.
Some of the high-advanced technology could remotely control a mobile device and turn its features on to record calls or steal photos, phone locations and several other private data. Others were placed in Uighur-related apps and texts to hide their presence.
A threat intelligence engineer at Lookout, Apurva Kumar, said China followed Uighurs wherever they went, no matter which country they fled to. Kumar assisted in discovering the hidden campaign and likened China to a predator silently stalking its prey across the globe.
Revealing the abuse
According to Business Insider, a member of the Uighur Muslim community, Rushan Abbas, felt obligated to be public regarding the alleged violations to human rights, mass surveillance, and locking up of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Opening up about the campaign, however, has its consequences, said the US resident who founded and is now the executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, dedicated to calling for the preservation of Uighur rights and freedom.
After a week from speaking out about the abuses against her people in 2018, her sister, who lived in Xinjiang, disappeared without a trace. Abbas believes the Chinese government took her sibling away as punishment for her actions.
Abbas revealed that she still has not heard from her missing sister and in February, revealed concerns for her sister's life who was suffering from high blood pressure and several other health concerns.
In early June, Abbas' sister was confirmed to have been detained by the Chinese government. Still, little information was announced on her whereabouts and health conditions, as reported by Radio Free Asia.
It is believed that Abbas' sister is part of at least one million Uighurs that the Chinese government locked up in re-education camps located inside Xinjiang.