China uses anti-fraud apps to track visits to overseas financial news websites

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China Business and Finance Update

According to a person subpoenaed by the authorities, the Chinese police are using a new anti-fraud app installed on more than 200 million mobile phones to identify and question people who have browsed overseas financial news websites.

The application was launched by the National Anti-Fraud Center of the Ministry of Public Security in March and can intercept suspicious calls and report malware. The police said they needed to combat the surge in fraud, which is usually carried out by overseas operations managed by Chinese and Taiwanese nationals.

The Ministry recommends downloading the application, but many local government agencies mandate that their employees and individuals working with them (such as students and tenants) download the application.

A Shanghai user told the British Financial Times that he was contacted by the police after visiting the US Financial News Service. He was also asked whether he has contacts abroad and whether he frequently visits overseas websites.

The user, who asked not to be named, said that the police seemed to be really worried about foreign scams. “But the question they asked about whether I had contact with foreigners made me feel that they didn’t want me to visit foreign websites,” he added. “I deleted the application after the meeting.”

Another user in eastern Shandong province said that the police called him for four consecutive days after the app showed that he had visited overseas information providers labeled “highly dangerous”, including Bloomberg.

“They said they would remove the’dangerous’ label on Bloomberg, but nothing happened,” the user said. “The authorities also did not disclose how they determined whether overseas websites were related to fraud.”

The app has also triggered thousands of privacy-related complaints online. These people said they must download the app to rent an apartment or send their children to school.

A dozen people told the Financial Times that they were unwilling to grant 29 permissions to the app, including real-time monitoring of call logs, text messages and conversations in order to install it on their mobile phones.

“I will not allow the authorities to access every aspect of my life in order to defend against scams,” said a marketing manager based in Shanghai, who ignored multiple requests to install the app.

Parents from all over the country stated that they must download the app before they can enroll their children in school. In Shenzhen, some tenants are required to install it before signing a lease contract.

“I have never seen such abuse of government power to promote unpopular apps,” said an office worker in eastern Anhui Province, who had to download the app before he could apply for an ID card.

“This is a monitoring application that can track everything on your phone,” an office clerk added, and he deleted the application a few hours after the local authorities told him to install the application. “I don’t need it, no matter how good its intentions.”

According to official data, 361,000 people were arrested for wire transfer or online fraud in China last year, compared with 73,000 in 2018. In April, Li Bei, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security, called this type of fraud the “fastest-growing criminal activity” in China. .

The app offers dozens of courses on fraud prevention. “It has played an important role in combating fraud,” Jiang Guoli, a senior official of the Ministry of Public Security, said at a press conference in June. Jiang added that the app sent 23 million alert messages in the first three months after its launch.

The Ministry of Public Security and the National Anti-Fraud Center did not respond to requests for comment.

Karman Lucero, a Yale University Law School researcher, said the app could be abused by the government. “It can certainly be used to develop valuable intelligence about who you are and what you do, even if you don’t listen to your phone calls or read the exact content of your text messages,” he said.

Additional report by Liu Nian

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