A wildly popular app touted as an educational tool by the Chinese authorities may actually be used to digitally monitor its citizens, a new report from the Open Technology Fund and a German cybersecurity firm claims.
Xuexi Qiangguo, or "Study the Great Nation," has reportedly been downloaded more than 100 million times in China. It features quizzes about China's history, politics and more, as well as news articles about the Chinese Communist Party.
An audit of the Android version of the app, conducted by the Open Technology Fund (OTF) and the Berlin-based cybersecurity firm Cure53, found that the app could potentially be used to access personal data from the user.
"It’s spying on users in the sense that it's collecting a lot of information on users that it wouldn’t normally need," Sarah Aoun, the director of technology at the OTF, told ABC News. "There is no good reason that this app should be collecting all this information and sending it back to the servers."
In a statement announcing the findings of the audit, the OTF said the app "contains code that amounts to a backdoor to rooted devices, essentially granting complete administrator-level access to a user’s phone."
The OTF, which is an organization partially funded by the U.S. government that works to support internet privacy, security and more, said there is "no evidence of if or how exactly this access is being used could be identified."
Moreover, the audit found that the app "actively scans to find other apps that are running on the user’s device."
The OTF also alleges that the app "purposely" uses a "weak cryptographic algorithm in areas containing sensitive user data."
Aoun says this is especially interesting because "at the same time the app uses very strong anti-reversing techniques, it makes it very hard for someone to look into the code."
It also "collects and sends detailed app log reports on a daily basis, containing a wealth of user data and app activity," according to the OTF statement.
The lengthy Cure53 report concludes that "the application's functionality leads Cure53 to believe that violations of human rights are indeed taking place."
Aoun said the app essentially amounts to a "surveillance device in your pocket."
"The biggest concern is just how many people actually have this app. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of downloads," Aoun told ABC News. "The most concerning part is just the reach and the size of this surveillance device in your pocket."
China's State Council Information Office denied the app had the functions the report alleged to the Washington Post, which first reported the story, telling the outlet in a faxed statement: “We learned from those who run the Study the Great Nation app that there is no such thing as you have mentioned."