An app released by the Chinese Communist Party earlier this year has been found to have virtually unlimited access to the data on a user’s Android smartphone—and the consequences are horrifying, reports the Washington Post. The app, called “Study the Great Nation,” was released by the Chinese Communist Party back in January, and by April Chinese state media said it had become the most downloaded app in China, with over 100 million downloads.
The app is essentially a study guide about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideology and allows users to read and comment on videos and news articles about his activities, as well as take quizzes based on the information the user has learned and have their results posted to leaderboards.
However, the app has been found to be much more than a simple propaganda tool. The U.S. government-funded Open Technology Fund contracted Germany cybersecurity firm Cure53 to dig into the app’s code to see what was hidden beneath. What Cure53 found is about as Owellian as it gets.
The “Study the Great Nation” app has what’s known as “superuser” access on Android devices. As the Washington Post explains, such status is essentially a free-for-all backdoor for the app’s developers, in this case the Chinese Communist Party, to do and see anything they want to on the user’s phone. As the Post reports:
This includes allowing the app to access and take photos and videos, transmit the user’s location, activate audio recording, dial phone numbers and trawl through the user’s contacts and Internet activity, as well as retrieve information from 960 other applications including shopping, travel and messaging platforms. It even requires the ability to connect to WiFi and turn on the flashlight, according to the terms listed by Xiaomi, another Chinese smartphone manufacturer.
“Study the Great Nation” is unfortunately a perfect example of how authoritarian governments can use a simple app to keep tabs on their citizenry.
It should be noted that “Study the Great Nation” is also available on iOS in China; however, the Washington Post says Cure53 did not investigate the iOS version of the app. Apple told the Post that iOS does not allow any type of “superuser” surveillance like Android does.
When Chinese government officials were contacted about the app’s findings, the State Council Information Office, responding for the Propaganda Department, said:
We learned from those who run the Study the Great Nation app that there is no such thing as you have mentioned.