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Chinese City Spends $24,000 to Buy Trojan Horse Software to Spy on Smartphones

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The police department of the Chinese city of Wenzhou in southeast China has spent thousands of dollars on a software that installs Trojan horse viruses into mobile phones, allowing police officers to spy on other people's activities on their phones.

Investigative reporter Liu Hu of the Changjiang Times first made the report when he posted on his Sina Weibo page a screenshot of a list of devices that were purchased by the Wenzhou police force and posted on the website of the Wenzhou Economic Technology Department Zone in Zheijiang province on Dec. 15.

The list includes a 49,000-yuan Trojan horse virus for mobile phones and a 100,000-yuan device that injects the virus into illegally unlocked iOS and Android phones. All told, the Wenzhou police department spent 149,000 yuan, or approximately $24,000, on spyware "to monitor the saved call logs, messages, photos and other information" on iPhones and Android phones. The software was provided by Wuhan Hongxin Telecommunication Technologies, a company based in the Central China province of Hubei.

The document has since then been taken down from the government website, but the list has made the rounds of Sina Weibo, eliciting various reactions from users. Some users defended the purchase, saying that the publication of the document was done in a government effort to become more transparent about its crackdown on criminal activity conducted online.

"If they don't use a little bit of modern technology, how do you expect them to crack cases?" says one user.

Others, however, were concerned about their privacy online.

"Technological surveillance measures are like a Pandora's box; once you open it, it's difficult to control," says another Sina Weibo user. "And what are the consequences if you lose control? Chilling."

The Wenzhou police department has not confirmed that it has indeed purchased the Trojan horse software, but the municipal public security bureau has told the Beijing News that it is investigating the matter.

A Trojan horse is a malicious software that, when injected into a device, sends information contained in that device to a third party without the knowledge of the device's owner. China, which has publicly stated that it "opposes cyberattacks and cyberterrorism in all its forms," has repeatedly regarded itself as a victim of hacking and cyber-intrusions.

Liu has had a history of brushes with the Chinese government. In October 2013, he was arrested by Beijing law enforcers for suggesting to investigate Ma Zhengqi, deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. He was released on bail after Liu's lawyers claimed prosecutors were not able to file a case against him within the lawful arrest period.

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