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.
The device was also recording what folders he opened and to which screens he swiped, including the status bar and the settings page. All of the data was being packaged up and sent to remote servers in Singapore and Russia, though the Web domains they hosted were registered in Beijing.
Meanwhile, at Forbes’ request, cybersecurity researcher Andrew Tierney investigated further. He also found browsers shipped by Xiaomi on Google Play—Mi Browser Pro and the Mint Browser—were collecting the same data. Together, they have more than 15 million downloads, according to Google Play statistics.
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.
“My main concern for privacy is that the data sent to their servers can be very easily correlated with a specific user,” warned Cirlig.
But, as pointed out by Cirlig and Tierney, it wasn’t just the website or Web search that was sent to the server. Xiaomi was also collecting data about the phone, including unique numbers for identifying the specific device and Android version. Cirlig said such “metadata” could “easily be correlated with an actual human behind the screen.”
Xiaomi’s spokesperson also denied that browsing data was being recorded under incognito mode. Both Cirlig and Tierney, however, found in their independent tests that their web habits were sent off to remote servers regardless of what mode the browser was set to, providing both photos and videos as proof.
Both Cirlig and Tierney said Xiaomi’s behavior was more invasive than other browsers like Google Chrome or Apple Safari. “It’s a lot worse than any of the mainstream browsers I have seen,” Tierney said. “Many of them take analytics, but it’s about usage and crashing. Taking browser behavior, including URLs, without explicit consent and in private browsing mode, is about as bad as it gets.”
Cirlig also suspected that his app use was being monitored by Xiaomi, as every time he opened an app, a chunk of information would be sent to a remote server. Another researcher who’d tested Xiaomi devices, though was under an NDA to discuss the matter openly, said he’d seen the manufacturer’s phone collect such data. Xiaomi didn’t respond to questions on that issue.
Late in his research, Cirlig also discovered that Xiaomi’s music player app on his phone was collecting information on his listening habits: what songs were played and when.
It’s a bit of a puff piece, as American software also records all this data and sends it home. The article also seems to suggest that the whole phone is always sending data home, but only really talks about the browser and a music player app. So yes, you should have installed Firefox and used that as a browser as soon as you got the phone, but that goes for any phone that comes with Safari or Chrome as a browser too. A bit of anti Chinese storm in a teacup