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.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

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

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread

  1. 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.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.