NZ Spy Agency acknowledges Chinese Smartphone censorship allegations

By Will Trafford

Aotearoa’s spy agency the GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) says it’s aware of allegations of censorship and tracking, swirling around Chinese smartphone manufacturers, but declined to suggest kiwis ditch the devices.

Earlier this week Lithuania’s government told its people to dump phones from manufacturers Xiaomi and Huawei, saying the devices were censoring content search terms about Tibet, Democracy and Taiwan.

Lithuania’s ‘National Cyber Centre’ says one of the Huawei devices (P40 Pro 5G) retailed in Aotearoa had a flaw, which meant the phone’s AppStore could refer users to third-party websites which host apps considered ‘malicious’ or ‘infected with viruses’.

Both Xiaomi and Huawei deny the allegations while the GCSB says it is aware of the "international commentary".

China faced a backlash last year after an expose that revealed the government was spying on the country’s Uyghur Muslim minority using a smartphone app which let users download a copy of the Quran. Huawei, it was revealed also developed a facial recognition product that could detect members of the minority group and alert authorities.

The GCSB wouldn’t disclose if any NZ government departments were using devices from Xiaomi or Huawei, but said comprehensive risk assessments needed to be undertaken before a department could use a new brand or product.

The GCSB says it assessments are "country and vendor agnostic”.

A diplomatic stoush between the NZ and Chinese governments broke out in 2018 when the GCSB banned Spark from contracting Huawei to build its 5G Mobile network saying it posed “significant national security risks”.

Similar bans followed in Australia the United Kingdom and United States.