Chinese Smart TV-Maker Accused of Spying on Owners' Other Devices

2021-04-27
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Chinese Smart TV-Maker Accused of Spying on Owners' Other Devices Skyworth chief executive Tony Wang unveils premium 8K TV models at the Consumer Electronics Show during the CES Unveiled event at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, Jan. 5, 2020.
AFP

A China-based manufacturer of smart televisions has been accused of spying on its users by scanning their homes for other devices connected to the wifi network every few minutes, owners of the devices have reported on social media.

Smart TVs made by Skyworth were found to have an app -- Gozen Data -- installed on the Android-based operating system of the TV, according to a post on the V2EX website titled "My TV is monitoring all connected devices."

According to the post, Gozen Data scanned for and collected the names of his computer, his network interface card, IP addresses, and the usernames of those connected to his and other local wifi networks.

"I found that there was something called ‘Gozen Data,' and I had no idea what it was doing," the post said.

"The service was sending back the hostnames, mac, ip, and even the network delay time, as well as detecting the nearby wifi SSID names and mac addresses and sending them off to ... a database," it said.

The data, according to screenshots posted by the user, was sent to gz-data.com, a data analysis platform managed by Gozen Data that counts among its international customers Sanyo, Toshiba and Philips, and which holds data harvested from 103 million smart TVs according to 2018 figures.

Project Xueliang

While the company told the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong that the data wasn't used for surveillance, but for targeted advertising, former citizen journalist Xing Jian said the Android smart TV operating system has been repurposed by the Chinese government for surveillance of people's homes in rural areas, in an operation known as Project Xueliang.

"Project Xueliang uses the Android operating system to achieve full domain coverage, full network sharing, round-the-clock and remote-controlled video surveillance for policing purposes," Xing said.

"This app is a form of spyware that is inserted onto users' smartphones, TVs and other Android devices, and it will automatically scan and collect data about devices, usage information and social connections, and upload it to a government database for online monitoring," he said.

Analysts said the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to be implementing a nationwide surveillance network that includes watching people in their own homes and monitoring their contacts and interactions.

Other social media posts have said that users are worried about using Android TVs at all, while others have reported on Xiaomi routers requesting wifi-related information every few seconds.

A Shanxi-based legal scholar surnamed Song said the surveillance is aiming for total control over what people are saying to each other.

"The government is strengthening control of people's data for the purposes of ideological control," Song said. "They are also hoping to penetrate people's minds and influence their lives with government propaganda."

"They will be the arbiters of what news and information is appropriate for people to have access to," he said.

CCP uses surveillance and propaganda

Xing Jian agreed, saying that the CCP uses surveillance and propaganda as a way to bolster its grip on power.

"[They are] using state power to stop people monitoring the government or pursuing corrupt officials, so as to stay in power," Xing said.

"The Cyberspace Administration of China uses methods such as sending letters and stopping domain name resolution to domestic websites, shutting down public opinion monitoring websites, and taking measures to block overseas websites; the propaganda department forces webmasters and moderators to delete posts under their control by sending letters, and through coercion and manipulation," Xing said.

An employee at Skyworth’s Hong Kong office surnamed Chan told the Apple Daily that the data is purely for commercial use, for the purposes of targeted advertising, and denied it was spying on users.

Users are asked if they accept the data collection policy when they activate the smart system, and could compromise their TV's functionality if they reject it, the paper quoted Chan as saying.

Chinese citizens are already monitored by more than 20 million surveillance cameras as they go about their daily business in public places, according state media reported in 2018.

Artificial intelligence can also identify and "tag" individual cars, cyclists, and pedestrians with distinguishing information that can be stored and searched for descriptions of wanted individuals.

The smart video tool correctly identifies the gender, age, and clothing descriptions of passersby, as well as distinguishing between motorized and non-motorized vehicles, recent media reports say.

The technology comes amid a growing trend towards using facial recognition as a secure form of ID, including to identify rail and airline passengers, physical and e-commerce customers, and missing persons cases.

Facial recognition technology is already used by ride-sharing and robotic package delivery apps, airport and college dorm security, and social credit schemes, as well against jaywalkers.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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