Lithuania Urges Its People to Throw Away Chinese Phones Over Censorship Fears

Lithuania has advised its citizens to discard their Chinese smartphones as soon as possible after a government investigation found risks to personal data security, as well as remote censorship functionality that could block phrases including "free Tibet" and "Taiwan independence."

A cybersecurity assessment of three 5G-capable devices—manufactured by Chinese phone makers—concluded with the nation's Deputy Defense Minister Margiris Abukevicius, telling Reuters on Tuesday: "Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible."

A report released by the Defense Ministry's internet security body detailed the results of an August investigation that looked at the Xiaomi Mi 10T 5G, Huawei P40 5G and OnePlus 8T 5G—devices supplied to Lithuanian customers since 2020 and "identified as somewhat risky by the international community," said Abukevicius.

Experts found three cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the Xiaomi device, one in the Huawei phone and none in the OnePlus model, the report added.

While its evaluation of the Huawei smartphone found that the AppGallery—the company's built-in app store—could potentially redirect users to applications containing malware, its findings regarding Xiaomi's 5G device were most notable.

The companies cited are yet to publicly respond to the report. Newsweek has reached out to all three for comment.

The phone's Mi Browser—the company's native web browser—"collects and periodically sends out data on as many as 61 functionalities regarding user activities on the device," said the report compiled by the Lithuanian Defense Ministry's National Cyber Security Centre.

"In our view, this is excess information collection on user activities. Another risk factor is the fact that the abundant statistical data is sent to Xiaomi servers in third countries that do not observe General Data Protection Regulation via an encrypted channel and is also stored there," said Tautvydas Baksys, who heads the center's Innovation and Training Division.

In a potential clash with Lithuania's freedom of speech requirement, the Xiaomi device was revealed to have an embedded "technical functionality that could censor the content of downloaded material," according to the report.

At the time of the assessment, it added, the function—currently disabled for the European market but able to be remotely activated without user consent—included 449 keywords and phrases in Chinese characters such as "free Tibet," "long live Taiwan independence" and "democracy movement."

"Several apps on the smart phone, including Mi Browser, are periodically downloading a list of banned keywords from the manufacturer. If the content the user is downloading contains keywords from the list, it is automatically blocked," the report noted.

Baksys said the remote censorship of words formed in the Latin or Roman alphabet was likely possible.

The report arrives at a time of strained relations between China and the Baltic state, which has angered Beijing by forming closer diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Last month, the Chinese ambassador to Vilnius was withdrawn in protest of Lithuania's decision to allow the opening of a Taiwanese Representative Office in its capital—the first in the European Union to carry the language "Taiwan" instead of the more ambiguous "Taipei."

Lithuanian businesses have reported a decline or halting of economic activity from China, in what observers say could be indirect sanctions for failing to adhere to Beijing's position on the democratic island, which it claims is a wantaway province.

Lithuania Finds Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities in Chinese Smartphones
File: People walk past a Xiaomi store in Beijing on January 15, 2021. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images