Xiaomi, which has 6pc of the UK market, has emerged as a rival to Apple and Samsung

Credit:
Qilai Shen/
Bloomberg

Consumers have been urged to stop using smartphones made by a Chinese company after their built-in censorship capabilities were revealed. 

Lithuania’s defence ministry warned the public not to buy Xiaomi devices after finding they had the ability to detect and censor terms such as “Free Tibet,” “long live Taiwan independence” or “democracy movement”.

Its report said that although the capability in Xiaomi’s Mi 10T 5G phone had been switched off for the European market, it could be activated remotely at any time.

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." 

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

“This functionality is activated remotely by the manufacturer,” the report said. “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.” 

Xiaomi has been contacted for comment.

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 replaced Huawei as a purveyor of cheap but powerful handsets. Xiaomi sold 12.7m smartphones in the three months to June, according to Strategy Analytics.

Xiaomi has a 'Mi Store' in Westfields White City

Credit: Reuters

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

Cybersecurity experts said consumers should be worried about smartphone makers concealing censorship tools on their devices.

Alan Woodward, a computer science expert at the University of Surrey and a former consultant for GCHQ, said: “Absolutely they 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.”

However, he doubted Britain would tell consumers to ditch Chinese handsets: “For a country like the UK to recommend binning all Chinese phones would be a serious geopolitical move.”

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.