Stop using Chinese smartphones over hidden censorship software, consumers warned

Xiaomi phones could detect and censor terms such as ‘Free Tibet’, officials in Lithuania discovered

Stop using Chinese smartphones over hidden censorship software, consumers warned

Hundreds of thousands of British consumers are using Chinese smartphones embedded with software capable of detecting pro-democracy phrases such as “Free Tibet” and “long live Taiwan independence”, it has emerged.

Xiaomi’s Mi 10T 5G phone is able to automatically flag up and hide phrases offensive to China’s Communist rulers according to the Lithuanian defence ministry, which has warned the public not to buy the device.

Although the capability has been switched off for the European market, it could be activated remotely at any time.

Alan Woodward, a computer science expert at the University of Surrey and former consultant for GCHQ, said: “Absolutely [consumers] should be concerned. Censorship technology may be standard in some jurisdictions, but unless those vendors are transparent about what is included then buyers simply cannot make an informed choice.”

Advertisement

The Xiaomi disclosure is the latest in a long line of scandals over Chinese censorship. The country tightly controls what users can see on the internet, and has pressured Western countries such as Apple into following its rules when operating on the mainland.

It comes as Chinese leaders face growing pressure over their treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang amid reports of prison camps and forced labour. A crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong has also been widely condemned.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said: “Many agencies have long warned about the risk of Chinese technology.

“We need to look out for the spread of digital authoritarianism as it is increasingly programmed into our hardware, not just our world.”

The scandal has echoes of a long-running row over Huawei, another Chinese telecom business. Western countries including the UK have stripped Huawei kit out of their 5G networks because of concerns over national security.

However, Mr Woodward said Britain is unlikely to tell consumers to ditch Chinese handsets. He said: “For a country like the UK to recommend binning all Chinese phones would be a serious geopolitical move.”

Almost 450 words and phrases were found to have been blacklisted by Xioami. When detected, “the device filters that content and the user cannot see it”, according to Lithuania’s NKSC security agency.

It said: “This functionality is activated remotely by the manufacturer.

“It is believed that such the existence of functionality may threaten the free access to information, limit its availability. It can be said that this is important not only for Lithuania, but also for all countries that use Xiaomi devices.”

A Xiaomi spokesman said: “Xiaomi’s devices do not censor communications to or from its users. Xiaomi has never and will never restrict or block any personal behaviours of our smartphone users, such as searching, calling, web browsing or the use of third-party communication software.

“Xiaomi fully respects and protects the legal rights of all users. Xiaomi complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.”

The Chinese company has become a new force in smartphone sales, claiming the biggest slice of the global market ahead of Samsung and Apple. Founded in 2010, it makes Android-powered smartphones and other gadgets and sold 146m devices worldwide last year.

It is the market leader in Europe after largely replacing Huawei as a purveyor of cheap but powerful handsets. Xiaomi sold 12.7m smartphones in the three months to June, according to Strategy Analytics.

The business has just 6pc of the UK smartphone market, although this still means many hundreds of thousands of British consumers have used Xiaomi devices.

Lithuania’s deputy defence minister, Margiris Abukevicius, said: “Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible.”

In Britain, the National Cyber Security Centre declined to comment.

Lithuania’s concerns come amid an atmosphere of distrust between Vilnius and Beijing since a diplomatic dispute broke out in July over Lithuania’s growing ties with Taiwan, an island democracy of 24m people that China claims as its own territory.

When Taiwan announced it was setting up a representative office in Vilnius under the name “Taiwan” instead of “Taipei” in a significant diplomatic departure from standard practice, Beijing withdrew its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded Vilnius do the same.

There have since been reports of Beijing halting trade and export permits for the country’s producers, and suspending rail freight services, in what has been widely viewed as economic coercion to pressure Lithuania to put its relationship with Taiwan on ice.

Taiwan, which operates like any other country with its own government, military and currency, has been at the centre of previous smartphone censorship controversies.

In 2019, Apple removed the Taiwanese flag emoji from iPhones sold in Hong Kong and Macau, highlighting the delicate task companies face in balancing free speech with being able to operate in the profitable Chinese market.

The censorship runs even deeper on the Chinese mainland.

Philip Shoemaker, who ran Apple’s App Store from 2009 to 2016, told the New York Times that Apple lawyers in China gave his team a list of topics that could not appear in apps in the country, including Tiananmen Square and independence for Tibet and Taiwan.

Leave a Reply