Chinese smart television maker accused of spying on other devices for owners

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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

Owners of smart televisions have accused a Chinese manufacturer of spying on them by scanning their homes for other devices connected to the wifi network every few minutes, as reported on social media.

According to a post on the V2EX website titled “My TV is monitoring all connected devices,” Skyworth smart TVs were found to have an app called Gozen Data installed on the TV’s Android-based operating system.

Gozen Data, according to the post, scanned and collected the names of his computers, network interface cards, IP addresses, and the usernames of those connected to his and other local wifi networks.

“I discovered something called ‘Gozen Data,’ and I had no idea what it was doing,” the post explained.

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

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

While the company told the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong that the data was used for targeted advertising rather than surveillance, former citizen journalist Xing Jian claimed that the Chinese government repurposed the Android smart TV operating system for surveillance of people’s homes in rural areas in an operation known as Project Xueliang.

“Project Xueliang employs the Android operating system to achieve full domain coverage, full network sharing, and round-the-clock and remote-controlled video surveillance for policing purposes,” Xing explained.

“This app is a type of spyware that is installed on users’ smartphones, televisions, 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 explained.

According to analysts, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to be putting in place a nationwide surveillance network that includes watching people in their homes and monitoring their contacts and interactions.

Other users have expressed concern about using Android TVs at all, while others have reported Xiaomi routers requesting wifi-related information every few seconds.

According to Song, a Shanxi-based legal scholar, the surveillance aims for total control over what people say to each other.

“The government is tightening its grip on people’s data in order to maintain ideological control,” Song explained. “They also hope to use government propaganda to penetrate people’s minds and influence their lives.”

“They will be the arbiters of what news and information people should have access to,” he says.

Xing Jian agreed, stating that the CCP uses surveillance and propaganda to strengthen its hold on power.

“[They are] using state power to prevent people from monitoring the government or pursuing corrupt officials in order to maintain power,” Xing explained.

“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, coercion, and manipulation,” Xing explained.

An employee at Skyworth’s Hong Kong office named Chan told the Apple Daily that the data is solely for commercial purposes, such as targeted advertising, and that the company is not spying on users.

When users activate the smart system, they are asked if they accept the data collection policy, and rejecting it may jeopardize the functionality of their TV, according to Chan.

According to state media reports from 2018, Chinese citizens are already being watched by more than 20 million surveillance cameras as they go about their daily business in public places.

Individual cars, cyclists, and pedestrians can also be identified and “tagged” with distinguishing information that can be saved and searched for descriptions of wanted individuals.

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

The technology comes at a time when there is a growing trend toward using facial recognition as a secure form of identification, such as identifying rail and airline passengers, physical and e-commerce customers, and missing persons cases.

Ride-sharing and robotic package delivery apps, airport and college dorm security, social credit schemes, and even jaywalkers are already using facial recognition technology.

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