German Homeland Security Service Advises German Citizens to Use Disposable Cellphone and Laptop when Visiting China

Chinese president Xi Jinping

The German Homeland Security Service has issued an official advice for German citizens and businesses to use a ‘disposable’ phone and laptop when travelling to China. After a trip, people are advised to scan their devices thoroughly for viruses, and possibly even to reset or throw their devices away. The reasoning behind these measures is presumed large-scale espionage by the Chinese government. The German Homeland Security Service, called the ‘Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz’, states that China is “increasingly self-confident and sometimes openly aggressive” when it comes to defending its interests. Part of these hostilities may include data theft of the personal devices of foreigners. Both private data and corporate data may be at risk.

Managing Contact Lists prior to a visit to China

There are additional precautions one can take prior to a visit to China. Germans are recommended to only store numbers of contacts on their devices which are strictly necessary for the duration of the visit. Also, Chinese visa applications should be filled in “as abstractly as possible, i.e. with little depth”. A new visa application form for China was introduced halfway 2019. It asks, for example, for current and past work affiliations, which would facilitate targeted corporate espionage by China.

An example of China’s aggressive attitude towards data collection is the app that it reportedly has installed on the phones of everyone entering Xinjiang Province. Multiple independent investigations into the issue have allegedly shown that the app sends information such as text messages and data about contacts, the agenda, location and call history to local authorities. This mayb bring forth substantial breaches of privacy for those affected.

Huawei debate in Germany and other countries

In Germany, there is currently a debate as to whether the Chinese telecom company Huawei can supply equipment for the country’s 5G network. Those opposed to Huawei’s involvement fear that the Chinese government will pressure Huawei into tapping into sensitive data of German citizens and companies.

In the Netherlands, a new guideline for telecom companies was introduced earlier this year: at the heart of the telecom networks and infrastructure, no equipment from a country that ‘intends to abuse or disable an electronic communications network or service offered in the Netherlands’ is allowed. This could potentially exclude Chinese companies from being involved in the implementation of the 5G network. Other European countries, like Belgium, have also struggled and proven indicisive regarding possible collaborations with Huawei in facilitating the new 5G internet network.

Chinese theft of trade secrets on the rise, according to US Justice Department

China has been suspected of being involved in a large proportion of U.S. trade secret thefts. U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey states that since 2012, over 80% of economic espionage cases investigated by the department’s National Security Division implicate Chinese involvement.

U.S. officials have expressed substantial concerns regarding Chinese telecom provider Huawei. Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei has explicilty expressed that Huawei would never install a back door on its equipment, even if ordered by Chinese government officials. However, US security experts say that Huawei will have no choice but to act in accordance with the Chinese government’s requests.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.