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.
Thomas Brewster , April 30, 2020
Many more millions are likely to be affected by what Cirlig described as a serious privacy issue, though Xiaomi denied there was a problem. Valued at $50 billion, Xiaomi is one of the top four smartphone makers in the world by market share, behind Apple, Samsung and Huawei. Xiaomi’s big sell is cheap devices that have many of the same qualities as higher-end smartphones. But for customers, that low cost could come with a hefty price: their privacy.
Cirlig thinks that the problems affect many more models than the one he tested. He downloaded firmware for other Xiaomi phones—including the Xiaomi MI 10, Xiaomi Redmi K20 and Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 devices. He then confirmed they had the same browser code, leading him to suspect they had the same privacy issues.
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.