Using mobile phones in China means you’re almost certainly being monitored by someone. Mobile phones made by Chinese companies and sold in other countries have also been reported to have backdoors built-in. These backdoors are placed there at the behest of the government to collect data on users, for whatever reason. Recently, new evidence of such backdoors was revealed on the new Vivo NEX smartphone.
Last month, users of Vivo NEX, a Chinese Android phone, found that when they opened certain applications on the phone, including Chinese internet giant QQ browser and travel booking app Ctrip, the mobile device’s camera would self-activate.
Though perhaps unintentionally, this design feature has given Chinese mobile users a tangible sense of exactly when and how they are being monitored.
It’s important to note that this behavior seems to be affecting users in the Chinese market but if you’re communicating with a user in China, you’re being watched as well.
One Weibo user observed that the retractable camera self-activates whenever he opens a new chat on Telegram, a messaging application designed for secured and encrypted communication.
A Vivo NEX user found that once she had installed Baidu’s voice input system, it would activate the phone’s camera and sound recording function whenever the user opened any application — including chat apps, browsers — that allows the user to input text.
Baidu has been notorious for snooping into users’ private data and activities. In January 2018, a government-affiliated consumer association in Jiangsu province filed a lawsuit against Baidu’s search application and mobile browser for snooping on users’ phone conversations and accessing their geo-location data without user consent.
But the case was dropped in March after Baidu updated its applications by securing users’ consent for control over their mobile camera, voice recording, geo-location data, even though these controls are not essential to the application’s functionality.