June 6, 2020

Apple Helps China Censor Citizens By Pulling The Plug On A Keyboard App That Encrypted Text Messages

China keeps being China, despite all the problems it has at home. The coronavirus traces back to Wuhan, China, and it has become clear the Chinese government is doing what it can to suppress reporting on the outbreak.

The country has a fine-tuned censorship machine that works in concert with its overbearing surveillance apparatus to ensure the government maintains control of the narrative. “Ensures” is perhaps too strong a term because, despite its best efforts, information always leaks out around the edges.

Citizens of China have found numerous ways to dodge censorship and surveillance over the years. But they’re not being helped much by American companies, which have more often than not complied with government demands for apologies, takedowns, and other efforts that ensure access to the Chinese market at the expense of their Chinese users.

The latest news is more of the same. A clever keyboard app that encrypted messages has been nuked from the Chinese app store by Apple following a takedown demand from the Chinese government.

Apple yesterday removed Boom the Encryption Keyboard, an app that allowed Chinese internet users to bypass censorship, from the China app store, according to its developer.

[…]

According to an email sent by Apple to [app developer] Wang Huiyu, the app was removed because it contained “content that is illegal in China.” The app is still available in other regions, including Hong Kong, he said.

Boom encrypted messages by changing the originating English or Chinese to a blend of emoji, Japanese, and Korean characters. To decrypt the messages, users simply copied the characters sent to them, which were reverted to their original state on the keyboard below. Not enough to thwart targeted surveillance, but more than enough to dodge blanket censorship efforts like keyword blacklists.

The app’s developer suspects Boom was targeted by the Chinese government because it was being used to spread an article about the virus that was censored by the government shortly after its publication.

The article in question is an interview with Ai Fen, a Wuhan doctor who said she was reprimanded for alerting other people about the novel coronavirus. The article, published on March 10 by China’s Ren Wu magazine, was deleted within hours of its publication. Various versions of the article, including those reproduced in emoji, English, and even Hebrew, emerged after the deletion as people scrambled to save Ai’s story…

This is the sort of information American companies should be helping to spread, not shutting down at the behest of the parties who want to see this information buried. If this were a one-off, it would be worrying. But it’s just another data point in a long string of incidents where American tech companies have endangered users in foreign countries, seemingly for the single purpose of maintaining market share.
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