China: Cybersecurity researchers accused Xiaomi of recording users' web and phone use

Author: Thomas Brewster, Forbes, Published on: 6 May 2020

“Exclusive: Warning Over Chinese Mobile Giant Xiaomi Recording Millions Of People’s ‘Private’ Web And Phone Use”, 30 April 2020

… Cirlig is speaking with Forbes after discovering that his Redmi Note 8 smartphone was watching much of what he was doing on the phone. That data was then being sent to remote servers hosted by another Chinese tech giant, Alibaba, which were ostensibly rented by Xiaomi.

The seasoned cybersecurity researcher found a worrying amount of his behavior was being tracked, whilst various kinds of device data were also being harvested, leaving Cirlig spooked that his identity and his private life was being exposed to the Chinese company…

When he looked around the Web on the device’s default Xiaomi browser, it recorded all the websites he visited, including search engine queries whether with Google or the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo, and every item viewed on a news feed feature of the Xiaomi software. That tracking appeared to be happening even if he used the supposedly private “incognito” mode.

The device was also recording what folders he opened and to which screens he swiped, including the status bar and the settings page. All of the data was being packaged up and sent to remote servers in Singapore and Russia, though the Web domains they hosted were registered in Beijing.

Meanwhile, at Forbes’ request, cybersecurity researcher Andrew Tierney investigated further. He also found browsers shipped by Xiaomi on Google Play—Mi Browser Pro and the Mint Browser—were collecting the same data…

Many more millions are likely to be affected by what Cirlig described as a serious privacy issue, though Xiaomi denied there was a problem… for customers, that low cost could come with a hefty price: their privacy…

And there appear to be issues with how Xiaomi is transferring the data to its servers. Though the Chinese company claimed the data was being encrypted when transferred in an attempt to protect user privacy, Cirlig found he was able to quickly see just what was being taken from his device by decoding a chunk of information that was hidden with a form of easily crackable encoding, known as base64. It took Cirlig just a few seconds to change the garbled data into readable chunks of information…

In response to the findings, Xiaomi said, “The research claims are untrue,” and “Privacy and security is of top concern,” adding that it “strictly follows and is fully compliant with local laws and regulations on user data privacy matters.” But a spokesperson confirmed it was collecting browsing data, claiming the information was anonymized so wasn’t tied to any identity. They said that users had consented to such tracking...

Xiaomi’s spokesperson also denied that browsing data was being recorded under incognito mode…

… the company spokesperson continued to deny that the information was being recorded. “This video shows the collection of anonymous browsing data, which is one of the most common solutions adopted by internet companies to improve the overall browser product experience through analyzing non-personally identifiable information,” they added…

Both Cirlig and Tierney found their Xiaomi apps were sending data to domains that appeared to reference Sensors Analytics, including the repeated use of SA….

Xiaomi’s spokesperson confirmed the relationship with the startup: “While Sensors Analytics provides a data analysis solution for Xiaomi, the collected anonymous data are stored on Xiaomi's own servers and will not be shared with Sensors Analytics, or any other third-party companies.”…

UPDATE: Xiaomi posted a blog in which it delineated how and when it collects visited URLs visited by its users…

The company reiterated that the data transferred from Xiaomi devices and browsers was anonymized and not attached to any identity…

[Also referred to Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Cheetah Mobile]

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Related companies: Apple Huawei Technologies Samsung Xiaomi