The Chinese-made XDH-CF-5600 scanner - or “mobile phone sleuth”, as staff described it, was one of hundreds of surveillance gadgets at a recent police equipment fair in Beijing.
The China International Exhibition on Police Equipment is something of a one-stop shop for China’s police looking for the latest in “black tech” - a term used to refer to cutting-edge surveillance gadgets.
There were also stalls with robots equipped with artificial intelligence systems to detect criminals, drones, smart glasses, DNA database software and facial-recognition cameras.
Most buyers appeared to be local Chinese police, though some global firms attended.
Ford Motor Company, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Airbus SE had cars and model helicopters on display. The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
It was not possible to verify all the claims made about the products at the fair, including the XDH-CF-5600 scanner made by Xiamen Meiya Pico Information Company.
Scanners like it exist in other markets around the world, including the US, but their use is contentious, especially the extraction of data from mobile phones.
Chinese firms are rushing to meet the growing demand from the country’s security services, fuelling a surveillance technology arms race. Western firms have played little overt role so far in China’s surveillance boom.
Beijing-based Hisign Technology said its desktop and portable phone scanners can retrieve even deleted data from over 90 mobile applications on smart phones, including overseas platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
A big selling point of the technology, according to a policeman from Xinjiang who was eyeing a Hisign scanner, was its ability to get data from Apple Inc’s iOS operating system, used in products like the iPhone.
The iPhone’s iOS system is seen by many analysts as the most secure operating system. A handful of firms in Israel and the US have been able to crack into the iOS system, according to media.
“The ability to crack iOS has been around,” said Matthew Warren, the deputy director of the Deakin University Centre for Cyber Security Research in Melbourne.
“What’s different in this situation is that Chinese authorities are admitting they have the capabilities to do it.”
At the fair, several firms said they could crack four-digit passwords on platforms ranging from iOS 6 to iOS 8.1, and were working to break through the latest iOS 10 platform. Apple’s latest operating system uses a stronger six-digit password. Apple declined to comment.
Chinese authorities are targeting a nationwide surveillance network, leveraging off tools made by companies like Hisign to compile data gleaned from smartphones and cameras into an online database of its near 1.4billion people.
Hisign is not alone. Meiya Pico has a rival offering, the DC-8811 Magic Cube, which is marketed as “the Swiss Army Knife of forensics”. The larger FL-2000 is a “forensic aircraft carrier”.
Pwnzen Infotech, a firm backed by Qihoo 360, a cyber-security specialist, was another scanner maker at the fair that talked up its system’s ability to get data from overseas platforms.
A sales representative cited a case in which Pwnzen cracked the phone of a suspect, who was “subverting the government”, to get data from his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The representative spoke on condition of anonymity.
Facebook did not comment.
A spokesperson for Twitter said the firm was unable to comment on technology it had not seen, but that “privacy is built into Twitter’s DNA”.
Other sellers tout police glasses that scan people and match them with a database of fugitives.
There was also the AI-2000-Xiao An robot, a blue-eyed police automaton for train stations and airports.
The robot, shaped like R2-D2 from Star Wars, but with red flashing “ears” and over a dozen sensors and cameras, can identify people in a crowd, converse and broadcast police announcements.
Zhao Jianqiang, a research and development manager at Meiya Pico, said the firm’s tools used artificial intelligence to detect “terrorism-related or violent content” online and on smartphones.
The firm also has software that analyses audio files, converts voice messages into text and translates minority dialects like that of the Uighurs in Xinjiang into Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese authorities have escalated surveillance in Xinjiang. - Reuters