Lithuania has urged many of its citizens to throw away their Chinese Huawei phones and avoid buying new ones over censorship concerns.
A European nation has urged its civil servants to bin their Chinese-made smartphones and avoid buying new ones after experts found they contained “worrying” automatic censorship software and other security flaws.
Lithuania’s defence ministry and National Cyber Security Centre tested 5G mobiles from Chinese manufacturers including Xiaomi and Huawei.
One popular device from Xiaomi – a company that sells more smartphones in the European Union than any other manufacturer – was discovered to be capable of detecting and blanking out the terms “Free Tibet”, “democratic movement” and “Long live Taiwan’s independence”.
It was sending information about its owners’ activities – including how long they spent using different apps – to a proprietary server in Singapore, beyond the reach of the EU’s strict data laws.
The report also found a flaw in Huawei’s P40 5G phone, which put users at risk of cybersecurity breaches.
“The official Huawei application store AppGallery directs users to third-party e-stores where some of the applications have been assessed by antivirus programs as malicious or infected with viruses,” a joint statement by the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence and the National Cyber Security Centre said.
“The risks we are speaking about are real,” Lithuanian deputy defence Minister Margiris Abukevicius told AFP, describing the findings as “worrying”.
The Minister noted that around 200 public institutions in the Baltic state made use of Chinese-made devices and said the public sector as a whole “should not use” Chinese equipment.
“This is the best measure for risk reduction,” he added.
“Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible.”
A Xiaomi spokeswoman told the BBC that its “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.”
As for Huawei, a spokesman also denied the claims, telling the BBC it abides by the laws and regulations of the countries where it operates, and prioritises cybersecurity and privacy.
“Data is never processed outside the Huawei device,” he said.
“AppGallery only collects and processes the data necessary to allow its customers to search, install and manage third-party apps, in the same way as other app stores.”
Huawei also performed security checks to ensure the user only downloads “apps which are safe”, he said.
The discovery comes amid tense relations between China and the European nation.
In May, Lithuania left China’s 17+1 co-operation forum with Central and Eastern Europe, calling it divisive.
In July, it agreed to let Taiwan open a representative office under its own name, prompting a pressure campaign by China which has sought to isolate the self-governing democratic island located in the South China Sea the international stage.
Beijing halted freight trains to Lithuania and stopped issuing food export permits over the decision on Taiwan, which the communist government considers a territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
– with wires