Two intelligence officials and two security consultants told Reuters that the hackers working for the Chinese government have broken into telecoms networks to track Uighur travelers in Central and Southeast Asia.
The sources said that the hacks are part of a wider cyber-espionage campaign targeting “high-value individuals” such as diplomats and foreign military personnel. China has also prioritized tracking the movements of ethnic Uighurs, a minority mostly Muslim group considered a security threat by Beijing.
Regarding China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the country has faced increasing international criticism. The group members have been subject to mass detentions in what China calls “vocational training” centers and widespread state surveillance.
It has been alleged by Beijing, that cyberspace attacks against Uighurs indicate how it is able to continue those policies beyond its physical borders. Chinese hackers have compromised telecom operators in countries including Turkey, Kazakhstan, India, Thailand, and Malaysia, the four sources said.
Uighurs frequently use those countries as transit to travel between Xinjiang and Turkey in what human rights activists say is an attempt to escape state persecution. China has repeatedly denied involvement in cyberattacks or any mistreatment of the Uighur people, whose religious and cultural rights Beijing says are fully protected, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry said any hacking allegations need to be supported by evidence.
“We would again like to stress that China is a resolute safeguarder of internet security. We consistently and resolutely oppose and crack down on any forms of internet attacks,” a ministry statement said.
However, Reuters was unable to recognize which specific telecom operators were compromised. India and Thailand officials declined to comment on this matter. Malaysia, Kazakhstan and Turkey authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.