I know the title is rather sensational, however it couldn’t get any closer to the truth.
For those who are too busy to read the whole post, here’s the TL;DR version: The storage scanner in the Device Care section is made by a super shady Chinese data-mining/antivirus company called Qihoo 360. It comes pre-installed on your Samsung phone or tablet, communicates with Chinese servers, and you CANNOT REMOVE it (unless using ADB or other means).
This is by no means signaling hate toward Samsung. I have ordered the Galaxy S10+ once it’s available in my region and I’m very happy with it. I have been a long time lurker on r/samsung and r/galaxys10 reading tips and tricks about my phone. However, I want to detail my point of view on this situation.
For those who don’t know, there’s a Device Care function in Settings. For me, it’s very useful for optimizing my battery usage and I believe most users have a positive feedback about this addition that Samsung has put in our devices. With that being said, I want to go into details regarding the storage cleaner inside Device Care.
If you go inside the Storage section of Device Care, you’ll see a very tiny printed line “powered by 360”. Those in the west may not be familiar with this company, but it’s a very shady company from China that has utilized many dirty tricks to attempt getting a larger market share. Its antivirus (for PC) is so notorious that it has garnered a meme status in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Chinese speaking countries’ Internet communities. For example, 360 Antivirus on PC would ACTIVELY search for and mark other competitors’ products as a threat and remove them. Others include force installation of 360’s browser bars, using misleading advertisements (e.g. those ‘YOUR DEVICE HAS 2 VIRUSES, DOWNLOAD OUR APP TO SCAN NOW’ ads). These tactics has even got the attention of the Chinese government, and several court cases has already been opened in China to address 360’s terrible business deeds. (On the Chinese version of Wikipedia you can read further about the long list of their terrible misconducts, but there’s already many on its English Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qihoo_360).
If the company’s ethics are not troublesome enough, let me introduce you to the ‘Spyware’ allegation I made in the title. A news report from the Chinese government’s mouthpiece ChinaDaily back in 2017 reveals 360’s plan to partner up with the government to provide more big data insights. In another Taiwanese news report back in 2014, 360’s executive even admits that 360 would hand the data over to the Chinese government whenever he is asked to in an interview (https://www.ithome.com.tw/news/89998). The Storage scanner on your phone have full access to all your personal data (since it’s part of the system), and by Chinese laws and regulations, would send these data to the government when required.
With that in mind, for those who know intermediate computer networking, I setup a testing environment on my laptop with Wireshark trying to capture the packets and see what domains my phone are talking to. I head over to Device Care’s storage section and tapped update database (this manual update function seems to be missing from One UI 2.0), and voila, I immediately saw my phone communicating to many Chinese servers (including 360 [dot] cn, wshifen [dot] com). I have collected the packets and import them into NetworkMiner, here’s the screenshot of the domains: https://imgur.com/EtfInqv. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to parse what exactly was transferred to the servers, since it would require me to do a man in a middle attack on my phone which required root access (and rooting seemed to be impossible on my Snapdragon variant). If you have a deeper knowledge about how to parse the encrypted packets, please let me know.
Some may say that it’s paranoia, but please think about it. Being the digital dictatorship that is the Chinese government, it can force 360 to push an update to the storage scanner and scan for files that are against their sentiment, marking these users on their “Big Data platform”, and then swiftly remove all traces through another update. OnePlus has already done something similar by pushing a sketchy Clipboard Capturer to beta versions of Oxygen OS (which compared clipboard contents to a ‘badword’ list), and just call it a mistake later. Since it’s close source, we may really know what’s being transmitted to the said servers. Maybe it was simply contacting the servers for updates and sending none of our personal data, but this may change anytime (considering 360’s notorious history).
I discovered that the Device Care could not even be disabled in Settings. I went ahead and bought an app called PD MDM (not available on Play Store) and it can disable builtin packages without root (by abusing Samsung’s Knox mechanism, I assume). However I suffered a great battery performance loss by disabling the package, since the battery optimizer is also disabled too.
After a bit of digging, the storage cleaning in Device Care seemed to be present for a long time, but I’m not sure since which version of Android. It previously seemed to be handled by another sketchy Chinese company called JinShan (but that’s another story), but got replaced by 360 recently.
Personally, I’m extremely disappointed in Samsung’s business decision. I didn’t know about 360 software’s presence on my phone until I bought it, and no information was ever mentioned about 360 in the initial Setup screen. I could have opted for a OnePlus or Xiaomi with the same specs and spending much less money, but I chose Samsung for its premium build quality, and of course, less involvement from the Chinese government. We, as consumers, paid a premium on our devices, but why are we exposed to the same privacy threats rampant on Chinese phone brands? I get it that Samsung somehow has to monetize their devices with partnerships, but please, partner with a much more reputable company. Even Chinese’s Internet users show a great distrust about the Qihoo 360 company, how can we trust this shady and sketchy company’s software running on our devices?
This is not about politics, and for those who say ‘USA is doing the same, why aren’t you triggered?’, I want to clarify that, no, if the same type of behavior is observed on USA companies, I will be equally upset. As for those who have the “nothing to hide” mentality, you can buy a Chinese phone brand anytime you like. That is your choice. We choose Samsung because we believe it stand by its values, but this is a clear violation of this kind of trust.
If you share the same concern, please, let our voices be heard by Samsung. I love Reddit and I believe it’s a great way to get the community’s attention about this issue. Our personal data is at great risk.
To Samsung, if you’re reading this, please 1.) Partner with an entirely different company or 2.) At least make the Storage scanner optional for us. We really like your devices, please give us a reason to continue buying them.