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

from the don't-be-Big-Brother's-little-brother dept

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.

Filed Under: app store, boom, censorship, china, codes, content moderation, emoji, encryption, keyboard
Companies: apple


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  1. identicon
    Pixelation, 25 Mar 2020 @ 10:51am

    Our senators and heads of three letter agencies are licking their chops.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Mar 2020 @ 1:47pm

    Re:

    Our senators and heads of three letter agencies are licking their chops.

    This is a complete 180 of the rhetoric Apple used in the Apple VS FBI debacle. Forget licking chops, I'd imagine the DHS is desperately trying get an emergency appeal / retrial approved despite the pandemic. (Or worse, because of the pandemic and the very "real" threat of dark web terrorists spreading COVID-19 that they must rehear the case immediately.)

    "Hey, if it's illegal Apple will comply with backdoors bois!" - Every police state warmonger in Congress right now.

    We'd better hope there's no sudden additional paper clip on the COVID-19 legislation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Mar 2020 @ 3:50pm

    Sovereign nation is sovereign

    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.

    When "parties" are agents of the governments of sovereign nations, why shouldn't companies in foreign nations comply in order to continue to do business in those nations? The quoted bit above reeks of American entitlement.

    While I agree with the general sentiment and think all nations should enjoy freedom of speech that is not for me, you, or anyone not in those governments to say.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 5:47pm

    'I was just following order' has never been a good excuse

    When "parties" are agents of the governments of sovereign nations, why shouldn't companies in foreign nations comply in order to continue to do business in those nations?

    Because doing so puts profits over people, aiding an oppressive government in cracking down on their people rather than having the courage and moral fortitude to tell them 'no, we will not in fact help you screw your citizens over, and if you don't like it feel free to kick us out and deal with the consequences because we won't help you with that', with complying of course sending the exact opposite message, that profits are king and it doesn't matter what it takes to maintain them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 25 Mar 2020 @ 6:19pm

    Re: Re:

    This is a complete 180 of the rhetoric Apple used in the Apple VS FBI debacle.

    Not quite, in that case it was Apple refusing to change their own software, wherein here it's Apple pulling a third-party app off of their store, though given the dishonest arguments the FBI pulled out during that case I could certainly see them trying to point to this as an example of Apple being willing to 'help out' by caving to government demands and trying to spin adding in backdoors as just another way of doing that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Mar 2020 @ 5:29am

    it's our fault as well

    We've (the US and Europe) given China the tools, by sending our manufacturing there - for Cheap's sake - and we keep funding them by buying products built in China. So what should we expect? Communist repressive governments gonna repress.
    "The chickens have come home to roost"

    1. to compete on a global scale, we've sought cheap labor and/or automation
    2. instead of investing in another country - or better yet other countries (don't put all eggs in 1 basket), we invested in a country who's Communist government seeks global domination
    3. We have no one to blame but ourselves for fattening up our enemy

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Mar 2020 @ 6:51am

    Re: Sovereign nation is sovereign

    "When "parties" are agents of the governments of sovereign nations, why shouldn't companies in foreign nations comply in order to continue to do business in those nations?"

    They can certainly do so.

    And I refer to you your own argument for the explanation as to why people here are a tad outraged.

    "While I agree with the general sentiment and think all nations should enjoy freedom of speech..."

    And every time a major company decides to cave to the pressure of an autocratic censorship-happy nation without a whimper simply in order to continue doing business in that nation, more people in more liberal nations decide to vote Apple down with their wallets, as is right and proper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Mar 2020 @ 7:11am

    Re: it's our fault as well

    A few things to correct there.

    1) Yes, the west fell in love with cheap labor. Way back when. Today it's no longer that the labor is cheap which draws the business. Tim Cook's famous statement on how much the iPhone would cost if Apple tried to build it in the US (30k USD+) is illuminating. The US has voluntarily shed itself of the skillsets and education required to do those jobs at all. You can't find good tool & die-manufacturers in the US anymore. Not for love nor money. In China you snap your fingers and a dozen factory owners with years of skill and experience line up to negotiate the offer.
    Chinese labor isn't cheap anymore. It's just that the skillset no longer exists in the US on the required scale.

    2) China may call itself communist but it's really not. It never has been. It's the same ultra-authoritarian bureaucrat-run empire it's been for the last 3000 years. They're as capitalist a they come - arguably far more so than the US. It's just that they will all drop to their knees and kowtow to beijing when the mandarins demand it.
    They're also not interested in global domination. No way do they want to rule over "western barbarians" - or anyone else who doesn't have a thousand years worth of chinese ancestry. They just want the old days back, when everyone who wanted something done well had to go to the Middle Kingdom and ask politely. And in this it appears they've been eminently successful, bringing to fruition the policy they pursued since the end of their "century of humiliation".

    3) Yup. The chinese government makes policy and stick with it for 25-50 years on end. Chinese corporations plan around generational shifts in their long-term strategies and are willing to take losses.
    Meanwhile the US can barely bring a coherent policy to stick for 4 years. And US corporations only plan for next fiscal quarter where the foremost priority is always to bring the biggest dividends to the shareholder.

    Bluntly put the western business model is great at short-term profit and absolute crap at making sure they own the market in 20 years.

    There's plenty to be said about China. The full-on control freak mode they've got going for millennia. Their draconian punishment on any form of open dissent.
    But they can't be blamed because western business practice has every major company possess the attention span of a goldfish.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Mar 2020 @ 8:25am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I was going to say, this is nothing like the FBI case. I also think it may fall under one of Apple's rules for a 3rd party keyboard app or apps in general. It's supposed to do one thing, and it's doing other more hidden things.

    A messaging app that encrypts text is one thing. A Keyboard App though shouldn't be doing that. I get it, China doesn't want the encrypted text apps either which is why they are trying to go through the Keyboard instead. It doesn't sound like a thing Apple would want, China or not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Mar 2020 @ 8:32am

    Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    China is still Communest. They opened up their Markets to more Capitalism, which has allowed them to get where they are but make no mistake, they are Communest.

    It's not going to be easy to bring all this stuff back to the U.S. It didn't happen to China overnight, and so it won't happen here either. I think more people realize maybe it's not so good of an idea if China is making all of our drugs and Medical supplies these days. If they hold that stuff up from coming here as they have threatened, we're screwed. We spend all this R&D money on drugs are other things, and as soon as it goes to China for manufacture, it's now out of our hands and they're copying it like crazy and selling knock-offs for cheap. China doesn't care.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Mar 2020 @ 10:32am

    Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    Thanks for sharing your points on a coherent level.
    What about divesting in China and seeking cheap labor in other countries [potential future markets] as well?
    "Spread the love around" / "Don't have all the eggs in 1 basket"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    ROGueS, 27 Mar 2020 @ 8:34am

    Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    Your Archie Bunker is showing brighter than a COVID-19 forehead flush. Really? The Chinese are still "Mandarins" in your neck of the woods?

    So racist, Scary Devil Monastery

    Yor analysis is right there on the slippery slope of Manchurian Candidates, Charlie Chan, and Fu Manchu.

    Fake dieversity is fake diversity, and you really have that act nailed, pinky.

    I bet you fifty wan you have never once been to China, ever, or that you even know a single mainlander, but maybe have tried Chop Suey a time or two, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    ROGueS, 27 Mar 2020 @ 8:40am

    Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    Your Archie Bunker is showing brighter than a COVID-19 forehead flush. The Chinese are still "Mandarins" in your neck of the woods?

    So racist, Scary Devil Monastery

    Your analysis is right there on the slippery slope of Manchurian Candidates, Charlie Chan, and Fu Manchu and I am surprised you didnt drop some clever commentary about small penises, or dog meat Chop Suey in there.

    I bet you san mao you have never once been to China, ever, or that you even know a single mainlander, but maybe have tried Chop Suey a time or two, and "It was, well, it was ok."

    Fake progressive dieversity is still fake diversity, and you really have that act nailed, pinky.

    Try harder.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 27 Mar 2020 @ 9:16am

    Re: Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    "China is still Communest. They opened up their Markets to more Capitalism, which has allowed them to get where they are but make no mistake, they are Communest. "

    Nope. Not by any definition of communism. China is, if anything, the classic example of fascism - corporation and state in perfect unity. They've been a merchant supernation for 3000 years - which is why they've been so damn successful. If you let the fact that they've got a red flag - where one of the stars represents the "merchants" to be upheld and protected - then the joke's on you.

    What they have always been and will likely always be, is an oligarchy governed by the political and academic elite. The mandarin caste only switched from funny hats into business suits to adapt to modern society.

    "It's not going to be easy to bring all this stuff back to the U.S."

    It will be impossible - unless the US suddenly becomes chinese. Consider this. China started their idea of becoming the world's foremost manufacturing centre in the 1950's. They accepted eating 50 years worth of crippling their own markets and economy in favor of bagging foreign investors.

    Name me one US president willing and capable of telling the US citizenry they can expect a 20-30% reduction in living standards for the next four years, let alone two generations. I'll wait.

    "If they hold that stuff up from coming here as they have threatened, we're screwed. We spend all this R&D money on drugs are other things, and as soon as it goes to China for manufacture, it's now out of our hands and they're copying it like crazy and selling knock-offs for cheap. China doesn't care."

    Again a situation for which no one but the US can be blamed. Consider that every "generic" drug - unpatented one - can be manufactured everywhere. Yeah. Courtesy of Pfizer you are, indeed, screwed unless you force the required drugs onto full open licensing - at which point you could have every factory in the world starting to churn the medication out in bulk.

    US lack of regulations gave the US market a short-term win. Now comes the long-term loss caused by the same.

    Your only hope to get those markets back is if or when China grows decadent enough to slip up and jinx themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    ROGueS, 27 Mar 2020 @ 11:11am

    Re: Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    re: Communest

    Did you mean to imply "nest of communists" or are you just illiterate?

    Wawawawawa.Poor Murica (and Hollywood CIA-Israel types), sufferin' the plagues of Marco Polo infection, and fightin' copyright infringement of spaghetti and rocket propulsion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    ROGueS, 28 Mar 2020 @ 9:41am

    Re: Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    Yeah, right? Claus isn't always coherent.

    I suspect that maybe Denmark's infamously mellow honey wine is to blame, but it could also be his pink shaded schadenfraud too.

    It seems that the Danes beat the Swedes in the race to perfect honey wine, and the Vikings lost after that. Or, something.

    But, thanks for your coherence, for a change, Claus!

    But also, AC, you might have missed the Jasmine Revolution, which did EXACTLY what you are proposing. Next stop: Africa!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    ROGS, 29 Mar 2020 @ 12:09pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: it's our fault as well

    Hey, Claus, what happened to you? You used to troll my every comment, and now, this conspicuous absence!

    Is it the great Danish honey wine or something else keeping you away from responding to the posts above and below?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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