When relations with China are increasingly tense, on Sept. 22, 2021, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, a minor member of the European Union (EU), warned the country’s agencies and people about the risk of spying by Beijing when using Chinese smartphones, specifically Huawei and Xiaomi products.
The above recommendation is based on the latest research from a government agency: the Lithuanian National Cyber Security Center.
Speaking to the press on the release of the study by the National Cyber Security Center, the Lithuanian deputy defense minister Margiris Abukevicius said, “Our recommendation is not to buy new Chinese phones and throw away those purchased phones as soon as possible.”
The report, dated Sept. 23, is titled “Cybersecurity Assessment of 5G-enabled mobile devices sold in Lithuania.” The Lithuanian Cyber Security Center said it had assessed three leading phones made in China and available in the Baltic country market, Huawei P40 5G, Xiaomi Mi 10T 5G, and OnePlus 8T 5G.
In Xiaomi phones, the software is pre-installed at the factory and can be activated remotely. Its function is detecting and allowing censorship of hundreds of keywords or groups of words that are sensitive to the Chinese authorities.
The French daily Libération on Sept. 22 said those who use China’s Xiaomi phones—specifically the Mi 10T 5G—are, depending on where they are, at risk of not being able to consult the sites or download documents containing these Beijing-censored words.
According to the Lithuanian Cybersecurity Center, the blacklist of censored terms, located in a file called “MiAdBlacklistConfig,” is constantly updated from China. At the time the Lithuanian report was written, the list contained 449 “keywords.” Even though they are words written in Chinese, the file can include words written in Latin characters.
On Sept. 22, French expert Julien Nocetti of the French Institute of International Relations IFRI told the French newspaper Libération, “The risk of data leakage is very important because these companies have ambitions to design an ecosystem comprehensive technology to confine users.”
According to Mr. Nocetti, the critical point now “is the structure of Xiaomi devices that is being questioned, not merely the issue of 5G telecommunications networks.” He concluded, “While U.S. intelligence has begun to talk in the media about the possibility of reopening China’s 5G technology, circumstances (like the Xiaomi case) could tip the balance about a tougher attitude toward China.”
Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova is a Latvian Institute of International Affairs professor and an expert on Sino-Baltic relations on Libération. She said, “Amid the diplomatic crisis, I think Lithuania has decided to check the dialogue with China because they know that in addition to economic and diplomatic pressure, China has tools that allow them to apply pressure in a less obvious way.
According to this expert, the urging of Lithuanian state agencies to “stop buying new phones from Chinese manufacturers” and get rid of them as soon as possible is a call for a boycott addressed to all consumers in Lithuania.