News Brief

China’s digital Little Red Book could access all your data

In China, disinformation and authoritarian tech have created a digital hydra in the form of an app called Study the Great Nation. The app is a propaganda tool that encourages users to play games and keep updated on President Xi Jinping’s ideology. It’s been dubbed the digital version of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. But the app has a second, clandestine capability: it can potentially be used as a “back door” into users’ phones – accessing all their personal data, including messages, calls, photos and search histories.

A digital audit of the app was carried by the Open Technology Fund, a U.S. government-funded program created to support global internet freedom, in collaboration with Cure53, a German cybersecurity firm. The team dived into the code, and found that the app seeks to gain “superuser” privileges over citizens’ phones, potentially giving the government the ability to access and control the private data and activity of the app’s hundreds of millions of users.

The Study the Great Nation app was launched in January, and its skyrocketing popularity in China sparked the team’s initial investigation. “That’s one thing that drew our attention,” said Dan McDevitt, a representative at Open Technology Fund. “Before long the government said there were over 100 million users — and that’s a pretty conservative number.” The Huawei app store puts the download figures at more than 300 million.

Chinese citizens have been both encouraged and coerced into using the app as part of a wider campaign by President Xi to seize control of how information flows in the country.  The Communist Party of China has instructed all its members to download the app, and many organizations, including the Beijing Lawyer’s Association, Peking University and the Hunan Vocational College of Science of Technology have followed suit. Beginning this month, around 10,000 Chinese journalists will participate in tests of their loyalty to President Xi using the app. If they fail, they’ll lose their media credentials.

The app scores users as they complete quizzes, and logs the hours spent studying its content. There have been reports that students with low scores have been subjected to shaming ceremonies at their schools, and that employers make their workers submit daily screenshots of their point scores. “Propaganda is ubiquitous in China, but experts say Study the Great Nation is different because the government is forcing people to use it and punishing those who cheat or fall behind,” wrote New York Times reporter Javier C. Hernández in April.

This push to coerce large sections of society into downloading the app is worrisome, said McDevitt. He said the app could also be used to target professionals. “The unfortunate thing is for a lot of people using it, they don’t really have a choice. One of the goals of this study is to raise awareness.”.

The app was developed by Chinese tech giant Alibaba in collaboration with the Communist Party of China. “It’s one thing when a commercial entity is collecting data, I think it’s another when that actor is the Chinese government, given the intense information controls they have in place,” said McDevitt.

The Open Technology study was carried out on Android devices — which account for around 80% of phones in China. For technical reasons, the researchers were unable to look at whether the app functioned in the same way for iPhone users. Apple, which has faced recent criticism for removing an app that helps Hong Kong protesters avoid the police, told the Washington Post its devices were built to be invulnerable to surveillance attacks from the Study the Great Nation App.