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Digital paranoia

23 September 2021

Is this just paranoia or should we be worried?

Headlines this morning announce that Lithuania has urged its people not to use Chinese-made smartphones, for fear of security flaws and other threats that may lurk within.

According to this BBC story, Xiaomi’s flagship Mi 10T 5G phone was found to have software that could detect and censor terms including “Free Tibet”, "Long live Taiwan independence" or "democracy movement".

Researchers also found that Xiaomi phones were sending encrypted data to a server in Singapore, without the user's consent or knowledge.

So should we be worried about Sino-electronics and their ability to spy on our every move?

Well the US government thinks so and it has effectively banned many of its agencies from using Chinese-made drones, for fear that the video and images they take of critical infrastructure could end up in the hands of the CCP.

The drone maker most affected by this, DJI, has submitted several of its machines to Federal security agencies for review in the hope of proving these claims to be wrong. So far there has been little evidence uncovered to back up the claims made against those drones but that has done little to stem the paranoia.

Indeed, it is widely recognised that the anti-Sino-drone campaign is more of an attempt to boost the US drone industry than it is one to prevent security issues and the US government now has a "blue list" of "made in USA" drones that can be used. As always, marketing trumps reality every time.

However, this talk does raise the very real potential for China to be "intelligence gathering" using a huge range of cameras, drones, smartphones and other gear that it exports to the West every year.

If this was true, the sheer volume of data that these devices would dump onto Chinese servers is mind-boggling. However, advances in machine-learning AI systems might allow that data to be categorised and sorted far more easily than you would think.

China already reportedly runs widespread facial recognition routines on the footage generated by a vast network of surveilance cameras within its borders so they obviously have the technology and the resources needed to manage such massive volumes of data.

The real impediment to this being a reality however, is the massive amount of bandwidth required to remit all that data to the motherland. Of course even that could be mitigated to a significant degree by building much of the "smarts" into the phone itself and only sending back images/footage that met certain criteria.

Even so, the data volumes could be significant which means devices would almost certainly only transfer such data via wifi rather than through cellular links, so as to avoid alerting users by way of high charges or blown caps on their accounts.

Then of course, there are the much smaller packets of data that could be useful. The passwords to your online banking or other critical cyber-resources for example. This kind of stuff can be remitted to foreign servers in the blink of an eye and at the cost of just a handful of bytes.

From a strategic perspective, China would have a huge amount to gain by having millions of active windows into the streets, boardrooms, bedrooms and industries of foreign nations. In fact, the benefits might be just enough to warrant the huge investment required to create such a system.

However, I tend to think that most of this "fear, uncertainty and doubt" is driven by paranoia and rising levels of anti-Sino feelings in some western nations.

It also helps that my smartphone isn't used as a phone (only as a cheap tablet) and that I really don't have anything to hide anyway. My paranoia levels are very low -- yours may differ.

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