Hackers working for the Chinese government have broken into telecoms networks to track Uighur travellers in Central and Southeast Asia, two intelligence officials and two security consultants who investigated the attacks told Reuters.
The hacks are part of a wider cyber-espionage campaign targeting “high-value individuals” like diplomats and foreign military personnel, according to sources. However, China has also prioritized tracking the movements of ethnic Uighurs, a minority mostly Muslim group considered a security threat by Beijing.
China is currently witnessing growing international criticism over its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Members of the group have been subject to mass detentions in what China calls “vocational training” centers and widespread state surveillance.
Beijing’s alleged cyberspace attacks against Uighurs show how it can pursue those policies beyond its physical borders. Various groups of Chinese hackers have adjusted with telecoms operators in countries including Turkey, Kazakhstan, India, Thailand, and Malaysia being a part of the campaign, said the four sources. These countries are constantly used as transit routes by Uighurs for traveling between Xinjiang and Turkey in what human rights activists say is an attempt to escape state persecution.
Beijing has said that such travelers may be going to fight for militant groups in Iraq and Syria, with Chinese officials saying that the measures in Xinjiang are required to stem the threat of Islamist extremism. China has repeatedly denied involvement in cyber-attacks or any mistreatment of the Uighur people, whose religious and cultural rights Beijing says are completely protected, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry said any hacking allegations ought to be supported by proof.
“We would again like to stress that China is a resolute safe guarder of internet security. We consistently and resolutely oppose and crack down on any forms of internet attacks,” said a ministry statement.