Did Huawei Really Delete User’s Videos of Protests in China?

At the beginning of December, a viral Tweet showed up, claiming that Huawei phones are automatically deleting videos of protests in China. However, the person underlined that she’s unsure if it’s coming from the Cloud or device level. But that didn’t stop global mainstream media from jumping on the wagon and accusing Huawei of fraud and censorship.
For starters, let’s break down if it’s possible to delete videos remotely and look into other digital phenomena born in China, with the help of Cybersecurity expert Vladimir Radunović.

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china protests

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

Users report deleted videos of protests 

Protests on a national level against the regime are usually covered up by the mainstream media in the country. We’ve witnessed this scenario on many occasions around the world. But China is taking it to another level. 

Considering that most users are relying on domestic apps, and the fact that it’s a communist country, the ability to hide unwanted events is much more powerful. Moreover, in the context of Cybersecurity, China is imposing the idea of a so-called Cyber Sovereignty, meaning that the state will have authority over suitable content, devices, apps, brands, and more. 

In other words, it’s just a fancy term to describe and justify the extreme internet censorship and heavy mass surveillance of citizens’ lives. If you ask President Xi, there’s nothing wrong with having over 540 million cameras all around the country. 

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Whether or not you agree that China has adopted a totalitarian dictatorship, it’s clear that the ruling party wants to keep demonstrations under the rug and that demonstrators will usually face serious consequences. 

Regarding the recent zero-Covid mass protests in China, a surprising accusation emerged. Apparently, videos of the protests have been deleted from Huawei phones without users knowing anything about it. We learned about this from a single Tweet shared globally on social media and mainstream media. 

So, naturally, we wanted to dive deeper and check whether it’s true and which technologies can be used to delete videos remotely. 

The Peak of Internet Censorship 

As global media reports, such large-scale protests haven’t happened in China since 1989, also known as the June Fourth Incident on Tiananmen Square. 

It’s no wonder it’s difficult to find any evidence or video material supporting viral leaked videos, as the internet censorship in China grows tighter. According to The Wall Street Journal, government regulators have instructed tech giants such as Tencent Holdings Ltd and ByteDance Ltd (TikTok) to expand protest censorship. Both companies declined to comment on the topic. 

Consequently, protest videos have been taken down over the past few days, as well as search results for the official symbol “white paper” being suppressed. 

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Following the current Cybersecurity Law, the Chinese Cyberspace Administration has declared that users liking “delinquent info and media” will be held legally accountable starting from December 15. 

Not only that, Twitter users reported the invasion of bots on this platform, whose aim is to obscure news of protests and limit international observation. 

Namely, if you were to search for Shanghai or Beijing on Twitter, in order to find out recent protest news, you would be flooded with explicit ads. This includes everything you’d want to turn your head away from, especially obscure pornography content. 

However, Twitter was the 8th most downloaded app on China’s Apple Store on the 28th of November, which is the highest it ever ranked. 

Additionally, there’s another viral leaked video of police in the subway checking people’s phones for videos of protests. 

Apparently, it’s common for police in China to check phones for illegal apps and VPNs, but now they’re looking into videos as well. As citizens report, not giving away your phone is not an option. 

Police checking phones on Shanghai subway for protestors
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Is it possible to delete videos remotely? 

Considering the above, many defend Huawei, saying that the company is only following Chinese law. We’re not here to make verdicts, but we will try to answer if it’s possible to delete videos remotely, with the help of Vladimir Radunović, Director of Cybersecurity and E-diplomacy at Diplo Foundation

“Whenever a file is created, including a video, whether on the phone or a computer, there is metadata about that file. If we’re talking about an image, metadata includes information about its format, other technical parameters, the time of creation… Very often, there is some identification of the author, not specifically his full name but rather information about the device and its unique number. Then, there’s geolocation; although we may turn it off physically, the network is designed so that it can locate you based on the use of base stations. In addition to these parameters, artificial intelligence also recognizes images very well today. And not only facial recognition, but it can explain quite well whether you are in a crowd, whether there’s any sound and, by crossing these data, it gets the whole picture that you really were at that exact location”, Vladimir explained. 

However, although this data inevitably exists, the question arises whether the manufacturer or mobile operator can access this data. 

“Technically, they can. Technically, there are no restrictions on what the software manufacturer can do. For us, the whole phone is one black box; we don’t know what that software is doing. It can essentially do a bunch of good things and be very functional, but it can also have backdoors through which it can either be spied on or things we wouldn’t want to be done. Whether Huawei has backdoors, we don’t know. There has been much research globally, but so far, we do not have clear evidence that there are backdoors, which does not mean that there are none,” Radunović said. 

cyber attack

Photo Illustration: Freepik

It should be noted that these technologies are not only associated with Huawei smartphones, and that the possibilities for accessing personal data do not end here. 

“We used to take pictures and keep them on the device itself. Today that’s no longer the case. Our recordings are no longer just on the phone, or they are not on the phone at all, but in the Cloud, because we are constantly connected, it’s space-efficient, and provides faster processing… If it’s on servers, only then is it essentially in the computers of Huawei itself or the software manufacturer, and only then can they access it without us knowing what happened. Technically, it’s possible. Keep in mind that I always say It’s possible. We have no proof and we’ll never have proof. Now the question remains whether they should do it, and on that note we can only trust them. And our trust is on thin ice”, the cybersecurity expert noticed. 

Now, let’s try and explain how this technology works on another brand. The widely accepted example would be Apple’s CSAM Detection, which can identify users who store Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) in their iCloud Photos. 

The first rule for developing this kind of technology, which can be perceived as powerful and intrusive, is if there is a public interest in solving this problem. In the case of Apple CSAM, there’s no need to explain further the motives for working on this system. Now, in terms of China, we’re witnessing the ruling party trying to impose their interest as the public interest. 

In other words, they are trying to create a reality where identifying protest videos and removing them is considered a common good. 

Why are more and more countries banning Huawei? 

Apart from the ongoing rumors, this is not the first time Huawei has been accused of cybersecurity breaches. 

These are the countries that have banned Huawei telecommunications technologies to a greater or lesser extent, as well as ZTE: 

  • The USA 
  • Australia 
  • New Zealand 
  • The UK 
  • Canada 
  • Japan 
  • India 
  • Romania 

Listed countries agree on the reasons for the ban on the Chinese tech giant and accuse it of stealing intellectual property, research, business data, as well as purposely creating ‘backdoors’ to facilitate the government in spying. 

“The decision, that started with the US, to kick Huawei out by claiming they’re a national security hazard is a story for itself. The US has never provided the tech community, nor England, with clear evidence that Huawei really has backdoors and the built-in functionality for spying. So, we know this is possible technologically, but there is no evidence,” Radunović underlined. 

vladimir radunovic

Screengrab: Interview for Web Mind

As he pointed out, if it was purely a national security risk, they could’ve come up with other ways to reduce that risk, such as diversifying suppliers. On the contrary, they opted for a radical approach that, in his opinion, led to greater market fragmentation and may have major repercussions in the future. 

“It has in a way sharpened this tearing up of the economy and the IT market on a global scale. And it can have big repercussions because the whole supply chain of components, software, chips, hardware and so on, is global. After all, research is global as well. Although much of the research comes from America, not all researchers are Americans. Tearing up that the global market for innovation and new technologies will be much harder to achieve than they imagined. Consequently, it will slow down technological development and growth”, he concluded. 

Last but not least, many European countries have signed a Washington-backed bill into law to ban Huawei from developing a 5G network on their territory. 

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told Reuters that they have security concerns regarding the transparency of the ownership structure and don’t want to give that much control to a foreign government. 

According to NPR, Huawei’s official response is that they are not surprised by the decision to ban their products, because they are aware of how powerful the US political pressure is on other countries. 

However, closing these markets had severe consequences for the company, with Huawei reporting a 28.5% year-on-year decline in revenue in 2021. 

A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.