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This summer the Lithuanian government went public with an amazing discovery. A Xiaomi phone sold in Europe – the Mi 10T 5G – could censor around 450 words and phrases, he said. The block list was not active, but could be activated remotely. It was filled with political terms, including “Democratic Movement” and “Long live Taiwan independence.”
After the government released its findings, things got weird. The list grew to over 1,000 terms, including hundreds of non-political terms like “pornography,” apparently to turn the political blocklist into something more generic. Then he disappeared. “They reacted,” Margiris Abukevicius, Lithuanian deputy defense minister, told me. “It was not publicized on their side.”
The accusations that Xiaomi disputes, clarified how strained the West’s relations are with China’s growing technological might. While China-based tech companies like Xiaomi and TikTok thrive, there is still no manual in North America or Europe to handle their potential for censorship or cultural orientation. via algorithms. TikTok, with its impenetrable flow, remains unchecked. And the Lithuanian government report on Xiaomi, replica by another researcher, triggered a collective shrug.
“Western countries,” said Abukevicius, “are increasingly dependent on technology, and a lot of that technology comes from countries that are not friendly, that we do not trust, and that presents risks. “
However, how to manage these risks remains uncertain. Xiaomi was Europe Bestsellers smartphone maker in the second quarter of 2021, and it’s number two in the world globally. However, according to research, it did not activate the block list. And it’s possible that he just mistakenly copied the code from devices in mainland China, where censorship is common. An outright ban would therefore be extreme. Still, the blocklist probably would never have been found without the Lithuanians’ research, making maintaining the status quo somewhat risky.
Lithuanians settled on something of common ground. Abukevicius first advised public and state institutions in his country to get rid of Xiaomi phones, causing a sensation. His defense ministry then law Project this would restrict public sector technology purchases from China, Russia and Belarus. For everyone else, it was simply a matter of informing. “To the public,” said Abukevicius, “this is a warning, these are recommendations based.”
The investigation has since spread to all of Europe. The Polish government called Abukevicius. Just like Germany. The EU is also interested. And the Defense Department has heard from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the United States, Abukevicius said. Yet even with all this movement, there is little consensus on how to handle the situation.
Jens Zimmermann, a German MP, said he referred the case to cybersecurity authorities in his country, but was unsure whether they had the Xiaomi phone in their possession. They had not yet responded with the results of their investigation. And whether a result of their work would lead to repercussions remains unclear.
“It could end with a sales ban,” Zimmerman told me. “But the most important implication would be the discovery itself. On the world stage, it is very often a question of naming and blaming. And so, just discovering and having proof that Chinese hardware has features like this would have huge implications.
Xiaomi does not sell phones in the United States, where the company has been blacklisted in front of the government took it off earlier this year. Still, the Lithuanians’ research has caught the attention of senior U.S. officials, including some, like Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr, who could play a role in deciding whether Xiaomi smartphones can work on its wireless networks. . Carr told me the research “underscores the need for regulators, including those here in the United States, to remain vigilant in the face of threats posed by technology companies linked to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Discussing how China’s technological expansion might affect the West is not straightforward. Fear of China is one of Big Tech’s main talking points as it defends itself against antitrust regulation, so good faith conversations can be hard to come by. And Chinese technology, including TikTok and the Xiaomi phones in question, is popular with many. Yet after years of North American and European technological dominance, China is striving for leadership positions in hardware and software. With that come serious questions about its cultural influence, which are not going away anytime soon. A plan to remedy this is therefore in order.
Alex Kantrowitz is a journalist covering Big Tech and society.