Huawei phone with child monitoring customizations spark debate

2 min read
A shopper tests a Huawei phone in Shanghai on March 22, 2019. (Image credit: TechNode/Cassidy McDonald)

Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei was broadly criticized on its home turf over the weekend following reports about a customized smartphone with applications designed to monitor students offered to parents at a local high school.

According to reports from Chinese media, two customized Huawei smartphones featuring a “student management system” were introduced to parents during a meeting held Saturday at Liuzhou High School located in China’s southwestern Guangxi province.

One of them, a customized Huawei Nova 4, featured “time and content management functions,” (our translation) enabling visibility on the amount of time students spend on their phones and allowing for school authorities to lock the phone. The surveillance system was reportedly designed by a Huawei research arm based in central Chinese city of Wuhan.

The phone boasts filters which have already blocked 500 million harmful websites, and can recognize and report content the school deems harmful. A school official told The Beijing News that some of the parents had initially proposed the idea to restrict students from overusing their devices. Parents and students are not compelled to buy or use the phones.

In a statement sent to TechNode Monday, Shenzhen-based Huawei denied having anything to do with the student monitoring system, adding that it was a “publicity stunt” unilaterally orchestrated by  Zhongheyixun, a Guangxi-based information technology company.

Records from a local education website shows the company is an authorized Huawei dealer in Guangxi province. Huawei did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by TechNode on Monday.

”It was just an anti-addiction initiative by the school in an aim to promote a healthy way of using smartphones. There is no reason to call it an invasion of privacy,” (our translation) wrote a netizen using the handle, “Eternal Magician,” in a Weibo post. However, some Weibo users criticized the school, saying it was “against humanity“ and that it is a student’s right to use a phone in class.

Concern over smartphone addiction not limited to parents and educators in China. Apple launched its Screen Time feature on iOS 12 in June 2018 as a tool to address the concern. It was considered a response to two major investors, Jana Partners and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), which had urged the company to deal with children’s screen-time addiction early last year.