Chinese Phones Sold in Taiwan Accused of Content Censorship, Users’ Private Data May Be Tracked by Beijing

By Juliet Wei | January 10, 2022
Juliet Wei covers China news and U.S.-China relations and has worked as a correspondent with Senate and House Correspondent Credential at Washington DC. She holds an M.A. in Specialized Journalism from the University of Southern California.
Customers look at a Xiaomi mobile phones at the company's "Mi Home" store in Mong Kok, Hong Kong on June 22, 2018. - Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi kicked off its initial public offering on June 21, but the firm is likely to pull in about 6.1 billion USD, far less than originally expected, with investors having mixed views about its main business. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

After the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense revealed that the Mi 10T 5G smartphone sold by Chinese company Xiaomi in Europe 2021 could censor approximately 450 words and phrases, the Taiwan National Communications Commission of Taiwan (NCC) has commissioned Telecom Technology Center (TTC) to test the same Xiaomi mobile phone sold in Taiwan.

More than 2,000 censored words and phrases

According to the NCC, investigations revealed that seven application software were installed within the Xiaomi phone. The censorship features are suspected of blocking Internet access or relating browsing data back to Mainland China. 

It also contained more than 2,000 censors for words in simplified and traditional Chinese, as well as English terms with relation to topics of government, religion, political organization, social movement, and names of political figures.

The censored words included: “Free Tibet”, “Taiwan Independence”, “American Institute in Taiwan”, “Hong Kong Independent Media”, “June 4th Incident”, “Jinping”, “Hu Jintao”, “Tsai Ing-wen”, “Lee Teng-hui”, “Bahamut”, “PTT Gossip Edition”, “Freedom Times”, “Chinese KMT “, “Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)”, “People First Party” etc.

In theory, mobile phones from various countries should have the option of turning off this feature according to the user’s privacy-related information, but this Xiaomi model does not provide this option.

In fact, it was revealed that the censors could be activated remotely at any time, raising concerns that users’ private information could be sent to the Chinese government. 

Moreover, Chinese citizens and companies have to follow the provisions of Article 14 of China’s National Intelligence Law. The provisions state that users have the obligation to “support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence work.”

The NCC sent inquiries to Xiaomi’s headquarters in Taiwan as soon as the findings were released in September last year. 

Xiaomi replied in an email that the Xiaomi 10T 5G mobile phones sold in Taiwan are different from the European Xiaomi 10T 5G (international version.) The statement added that Xiaomi smartphones in Taiwan will not censor users’ browsing access. However, upon further investigation, this was found to not be the case. 

Executive Yuan, R.O.C. (Taiwan) reiterated in a letter on Dec. 18, 2120, that the public agencies’ equipment must not originate from Chinese brands, and this applies to official mobile phones. However, Executive Yuan did not regulate ordinary users’ mobile phones. With this NCC investigation, NCC raises the public’s awareness of their personal information and privacy protection.

To counteract the censors, one suggested method is to check whether there is a message that informs the user whether data collection is active and to see if there is a function to turn the App off.

For example, the Chrome App for iPhone has a website tracking data collection, returning related notification messages, and provides an option to turn the function off. The user can also choose to turn off the function in advance.

Will Xiaomi phones be sold in the U.S.? 

Users like JohnnyH believe Xiaomi’s low price point is attractive to consumers, compared with Apple and Samsung’s more expensive products. “Xiaomi’s Redmi 10 model retails for $225ish and is affordable to most people,” JohnnyH said. 

When discussing whether Xiaomi phones could be sold in North America with carrier adaptations, one user in the U.S. going by the name of Syaoran said in April, “ It probably won’t happen.”

“The most important reason being that Chinese companies do not respect or follow the US and International patent laws, preventing them from ever selling their devices officially in North America.”