- Smartphones from Chinese vendors like Xiaomi, OnePlus, and Realme were found to be filled with spyware, raising concerns about data privacy and state-sponsored espionage.
- A recent study found that these phones collect and transmit sensitive user data without consent, including device identifiers, location information, user profiles, and social connections.
- While the Chinese versions of these phones were tested, the study suggests that the privacy risks extend beyond China, and more rigorous enforcement of data privacy legislation is needed.
Smartphones from leading vendors, including Xiaomi, OnePlus and Realme, have been found to be filled with spyware — should you be worried? Chinese companies have often been accused by Western governments of spying, and the new report is sure to add fuel to that raging fire. Digital privacy remains a prickly issue at the best of times, with even American tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others often facing the wrath of privacy advocates for their business practices. With Chinese companies, the stakes are even higher, as the data is often sent to Chinese servers, opening up Western governments and companies to possible state-sponsored espionage.
A recent study conducted by the University of Edinburgh and Trinity College Dublin found that Android phones from Xiaomi, OnePlus, Oppo, and Realme collect and send a lot of sensitive data without user consent. To conduct their tests, the researchers used three phones, including the OnePlus 9R, Xiaomi Redmi Note 11, and (Oppo) Realme Q3 Pro. According to the researchers, the phones come pre-installed with a number of apps that had many “dangerous privileges” enabled, with no way to turn them off. While some of these apps are from the vendors themselves, others are from third-parties.
Spyware In Chinese Phones
As per the researchers, the apps help the companies collect and transmit personally-identifiable information, including a device’s persistent device identifiers (IMEI, MAC address, etc.), location identifiers (GPS coordinates, mobile network cell ID, etc.), user profiles (phone number, app usage patterns, app telemetry), and social connections (call/SMS history/time, contact phone numbers, etc.). Traffic analysis from these phones found them to be connecting to many third-party domains, including those belonging to Chinese tech giant Baidu and carriers China Mobile and China Unicom, thereby raising serious privacy concerns for users.
One thing to note here is that the researchers tested the Chinese versions of the Xiaomi, Realme, and OnePlus smartphones, meaning the results do not directly affect smartphone users outside of China. However, as pointed out by the report, the sneaky behavior “poses serious deanonymization and tracking risks that extend outside China when the user leaves the country, and calls for a more rigorous enforcement of the recently adopted data privacy legislation.”
Knowing the close relationship the Chinese companies have with the country’s government, it isn’t hard to image that the vast amounts of data are being actively used to monitor citizens. Although the company recently passed a GDPR-style privacy law, the latest study suggests that it has done little to help people there preserve their online anonymity. While the global versions of the Xiaomi, Realme, and OnePlus phones are unlikely to be collecting so much data so brazenly, only a thorough study by experts will be able to establish whether they comply with Western privacy laws and are safe to be used without compromising user privacy.
Check For Spyware On Android Phones
While OnePlus phones sold outside China aren’t a cause of concern when it comes to spyware, there are ways to check if a suspicious app or program is running on an Android phone. Before doing this, there are a few things users can do to safeguard their devices. For one, never download an app from a third-party website or store, and ensure all apps are only downloaded from the Google Play Store. Additionally, use two-factor authentication where available, and always choose strong passwords. The best way to do this is by using a password manager.
Signs of malware on a phone may include sudden freezes and crashes, the battery overheating and draining, and the phone constantly overheating. If users notice different settings or unknown apps on their phone, that’s another sign that malware may be installed on the device. While sophisticated spyware can be hard to detect, mobile antivirus apps like Avast, Bitdefender, and Malwarebytes offer the ability to scan for and remove spyware from Android devices, including OnePlus phones.