Chinese phone maker launches privacy-focused device, raising suspicions

The launch of the Marathon M6/M6 Plus prompted industry pros to question how Gionee plans to maneuver China’s complex approach to privacy issues.
The launch of the Marathon M6/M6 Plus prompted industry pros to question how Gionee plans to maneuver China’s complex approach to privacy issues.

Chinese mobile device manufacturer Gionee launched a privacy-focused device that includes an encryption chip and boasts features like “private vault 2.0” and “private line calling,” in an apparent attempt to woo security-conscious customers in China. 

The device launch prompted industry pros to question how Gionee plans to maneuver China's complex approach to privacy issues and the government's history of strict surveillance policies.

According to its promotional materials, Gionee's Marathon M6/M6 Plus smartphones use “an integrated encryption chip and a secure OS, setting a new standard in smartphone security.”

The Chinese government continues to wrestle with requirements for backdoor technologies, raising serious questions about whether the government would allow the device to be sold to a Chinese market. Gionee is an unlikely leader in security and privacy issues– even within China. In December 2014, several models of Gionee mobile phones were discovered by the mobile security firm Lookout to contain a pre-loaded trojan called DeathRing.

Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told SCMagazine.com that he expects the company will provide access to the Chinese government “given the requirement to turn over information to authorities.” He mentioned legislation that requires companies to assist the Chinese government in decrypting data upon request.

Michael Shaulov, head of mobility management at Check Point, told SCMagazine.com it is “quite strange” for a company in China to market a product targeting Chinese consumers that claims to encrypt data.

“They are serious about working against the security of their population,” he said. “There may be strict control on who has access to the device.”

Segal mentioned that security claims for a product marketed toward a Chinese audience may simply translate to protection against cybercriminals. “Chinese consumers don't really have any expectation of privacy from the Chinese government,” he added.
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