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Xiaomi has the power to censor your phone, report claims

Researchers in Lithuania are not happy — and nor should they be

Xiaomi has the power to censor your phone, report claims
Callum Booth
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Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

A security report has found that Xiaomi has the ability to remotely censor its phones. This came from Lithuania’s Defence Ministry, which advised users of the company’s devices to get rid of them.

First covered by Reuters, the Lithuanian report found that the Xiaomi Mi 10T receives an updating list of blocked keywords from the manufacturer. While this hasn’t been enabled in Europe, researchers claim Xiaomi has the technical capability to censor these terms at will.

At the time of the study’s release, there were 449 keywords on the list — all in Chinese characters. These included terms such as “free Tibet” and “Taiwan independence.”

Dr. Tautvydas Bakšys, one of the researchers, said that while the “content filtering function was disabled on Xiaomi phones sold in Lithuania,” it could be activated “remotely at any minute without the user’s knowledge.”

When introducing the report, Margiris Abukevičius, the Deputy Minister of National Defence, said their recommendation was to avoid buying any Chinese phones and “get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible.”

In response to this news, Xiaomi gave us this quote: “Xiaomi’s devices do not censor communications to or from its users. Xiaomi has never and will never restrict or block any personal behaviors 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 (GDPR).”

This is an interesting response. The company denies any accusation that it has censored content, but it hasn’t denied these powers exist.

Read into that what you will.

xiaomi mi 10 t
This is the Xiaomi Mi 10T — the device that has caused all this fuss.

But let’s try and get a broader picture of proceedings. This sort of potential censorship isn’t new. China has a long history of limiting personal freedoms.

It’s most likely that the keywords found inside the Xiaomi Mi 10T were only for use in China, but discoveries like this highlight how easy it would be for technology to turn into a spying and control tool. Baseless or not, these same fears have driven governments in the UK and US to ban the use of certain Huawei gear.

There always needs to balance in these discussions though.

I don’t doubt the Lithuanian security report is true, but it’s hard not to see its release as some form of retaliation, as it’s hot-on-the-heels of diplomatic relations souring between the EU member and China.

This could also be why Abukevičius advised people to avoid all Chinese phones, despite the lack of evidence condemning every manufacturer from the country.

We should also be aware that only a single Xiaomi phone was tested in this process — although I’d be shocked if these potential blocked terms existed only on the Mi 10T.

If you’d like to read the full report (which also found a less serious security flaw in Huawei P40 and nothing of note in the OnePlus 8T), you can do so here.

This report and research is bound to be contentious — and that’s fine.

The most important thing is to gather evidence and decide whether the money you save by buying a Chinese phone is worth the potential security pitfalls. Only you can answer that.

(Update, Wed 22 September: We inserted a comment from Xiaomi into the piece)

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