For ages, Apple has had one of the best features in mobile devices: airdropping. With the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on, you could airdrop photos, videos, and other pieces of information from your phone to another in the vicinity. For many in college, this became a way to break the ice with someone across a crowded bar – and you didn’t even need their phone number.
In China, this feature was used for a far different reason; to spread truth and non-government-friendly messages within large groups. Without needing to go through the government’s censor filters, the real information could get to the people without any roadblocks.
These kinds of messages include the haunting image of a protester who hung banners from a bridge with a message that criticized dictator Xi Jinping. These banners were hung on the eve of the start of his third term in power.
Photos online purport to show a rare protest in Beijing’s Haidian district just ahead of the 20th Party Congress.
Extraordinary given pre-Congress security + surveillance
Among the slogans: ‘Don’t want PCR tests, want to eat’
‘Don’t want a Cultural revolution, want reforms’ pic.twitter.com/9RwyDb36RM
— Bill Birtles (@billbirtles) October 13, 2022
Since then, they have been censoring terms referencing “Bridge Man”, “courage”, or even the simple use of the word “bridge.” Then Apple stepped in on the government’s behalf and changed everything for the people of China.
Before that, this method of data sharing was a great way to send secure and private information on China’s thoroughly monitored internet. With the data not going through remote censors and instead just going between devices, it was a great way to get around the problem. They also needed to be relatively close, so there wasn’t a way to drop information miles or even blocks away.
The encryption on both devices was also backed up by firewalls on either side and made China’s Communist Party content moderators useless against the transfer of pictures featuring Xi as Winnie the Pooh or other highly controversial images.
China's internet has blacklisted Winnie the Pooh because he's been compared to their president 😂 pic.twitter.com/Ov3rz5rOoP
— 𝖒𝖏 🦇 (@darthm0l) July 17, 2017
According to Vice News, with the new version of the iPhone’s operating system, users can only accept messages from other users for 10-minute bursts. This change means no more walking around aimlessly sharing or receiving information as they could previously. They also must accept them instead of just receiving them.
Vice News also noted previous changes that showed how deeply Apple was bowing to China’s rule. “It pulled the flags of Taiwan — a self-governed democracy that China claims as part of its territory — from iPhones in Hong Kong in 2019.
It also proactively removes sensitive apps that might run afoul of Chinese rules from its App Store in China, including VPN, encrypted messaging, and religious apps.”
This is all coming as a part of a rather secretive $275 billion deal in 2016 in the hopes of avoiding a regulatory crackdown on their services.
This deal was kept completely under wraps until December of 2021 and included Apple’s complete cooperation in helping Chinese technical development, promises Apple would give China more orders for its components, and pledged incredibly close cooperation with Chinese authorities.
When this deal was first inked, tons of apps disappeared from the App Store in China on Apple products. This included encrypted messaging systems, VPN services that could circumnavigate the Chinese “great wall” of information security, as well as all foreign news services.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), this change only impacted iPhones purchased in mainland China. They also noted that Airdrop has been used by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors back in 2019.
The SCMP followed up by explaining, “It is uncertain why Apple made the AirDrop change or whether it initiated the move or was asked to do so by authorities,” they continued to say that Apple declined any comment on the situation.
This crackdown by China with the aid of Apple should be condemned by leaders the world over, but they never will. This kind of censorship is wrong, and China knows it. It also calls into question the legitimacy of Apple’s security measures.
If they are taking contracts with the Chinese, what kind of information could they be stealing from you?