Lithuania has recently issued a strong advisory against buying Chinese mobile phones. They even went as far as recommending that current users throw away theirs following a government report that found built-in censorship capabilities inside these devices.
The news has been doing rounds on other global news outlets and has made the headlines in lands far away even from Lithuania and China. This has especially been fueled by recent similar allegations made against Huawei in other western nations.
Explaining the Situation in Detail
If you’ve been following the news, you might be left a little confused as to what the issue really is. So here is a brief explanation.
It all started from a report that the Lithuanian government put out detailing the conclusion of a security test on Chinese phone companies; Xiaomi, Huawei and OnePlus.
In the report, OnePlus phones were found to have no significant security issues. Surprisingly enough, Huawei, the company which many would have considered number one suspect, was found to have a few minor security issues. They were only accused of not doing enough to protect users from malicious apps on their platform.
It was Xiaomi that caused much ruckus. The report stated that Xiaomi devices had the ability to censor some key terms typed into them. Such include terms like ‘free Tibet’ and ‘democracy movement.’
The tests found that the censorship had been turned off in Lithuania and in the wider European Union but could be turned on remotely.
Huawei and Xiaomi both denied these claims and reiterated that these functions only worked in China and had been turned off in the European Union in accordance with the region’s strict data privacy laws.
While the testing in Lithuania may have been rigorous, the report does go a little overboard in its conclusions.
First, the report makes no specific mention of actual user data being sent from said Chinese phones to the Chinese government. No matter how many similar criticisms levelled against Chinese devices no one has been able to show evidence of data being sent to Chinese governments. Most only go as far as to indicate their capability to do so but show no actual data transfers.
This may be due to the fact that it would be much more cost-effective to turn off censorship features when selling to international markets rather than build completely build new software.
Furthermore, the report only takes a look at a handful of Chinese made devices, these are the Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro, OnePlus 8T and Huawei. It would be unfair to level these accusations on all Chinese made devices which comprise a good chunk of the global smartphone supply. Brands like Oppo, ZTE, Lenovo, Honor and Vivo have received no such accusations and are trusted globally.
It is however important to note that some of these brands are owned by the same companies in question. Realme, Oppo and Vivo are under the same company as One Plus. Honor is a subsidiary of Huawei. So, it is possible that the report generalized these brands and determined that they would probably have similar security flaws, a very sensible determination.
Are you in Danger?
The short answer is ‘probably not.’ If you do not own a Xiaomi phone then you have nothing to worry about.
If, however you do own a Xiaomi phone, then there is some slight security risk. But anyway, when is the last time any of us typed terms like ‘free Tibet’ into our phones? If, however, you do need to type such terms then a simple letter scramble should keep you safe from ‘big brother.’
A more pressing concern however is if such practices are restricted only to Chinese made phones. We already know that some of the biggest tech companies like Facebook and Google like to peek at what we do or talk about on our phones, albeit for different reasons.
While the motive today is mostly purely commercial there is the danger of turning such info over to the government who might be tempted to use it for more nefarious purposes. Ultimately, the buck stops with each user who has the freedom to decide which phone or apps they use. People should determine for themselves which devices are dangerous instead of relying on government institutions.