Chinese authorities have made a notable claim about Apple’s AirDrop encryption, which if true, could place anti government protesters at risk of being identified by Beijing.

CNN reported Beijing’s Justice Bureau as saying in a statement on Monday that a Chinese company called Wangshendongjian Technology, was able to help police track down people who used Apple’s Airdrop file-sharing function to send “inappropriate information” to passersby in the Beijing subway.

After a complaint, Wangshendongjian allegedly identified the Apple AirDrop senders’ mobile phone numbers and email addresses – at least according to Justice Bureau.

Apple AirDrop

Several suspects were identified, the Justice Bureau claimed, without giving details about the nature of the messages.

CNN noted that Apple AirDrop has been blamed for nuisance messages received by some commuters on subways and buses in Chinese cities.

The popular wireless file sharing function was also reportedly used by protesters to spread anonymous messages critical of the Chinese government in the last few months of 2022.

Wangshendongjian Technology “broke through the technical difficulties of anonymous traceability through AirDrop,” which “prevented the further spread of inappropriate remarks and potential bad influence,” the department alleged.

CNN has reached out to Apple for comment.

Government protests

Apple AirDrop has been in the crosshairs of authorities in China for a while now.

In 2019 during the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, AirDrop proved to be popular among demonstrators, who regularly used the feature to send posters and artwork to subway passengers urging them to take part in protests.

But in November 2022, shortly after protest against Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a month before, Apple quietly issued an update, that seemed to only impact iPhone users in China.

Apple limited AirDrop in China to made it harder for users to share files with people they didn’t know, after feature was used in anti-government protests.

Following that deployment in China, the feature was eventually rolled out globally.

China appeasement?

Apple has been criticised for years over its position in China, with some labelling its actions as appeasement, amid the repressive rule of President Xi Jinping.

In 2014 for example, Apple began storing the personal data of Chinese users on servers in mainland China – the first time it stored information in the country.

That move also allowed it to comply with requests from the Chinese government for data on thousands of Apple devices in the country.

Then in 2017 Apple announced that it would build a data centre in the Chinese province of Guizhou in order to comply with strict new Chinese data protection regulations.

Apple also in 2017 revealed plans to build two more R&D centres in Shanghai and Suzhou as part of a 3.5 billion yuan (£410 million) investment, adding to the two in Beijing and Shenzhen that were announced in 2016.

Other apparent concessions include removing an app from the App Store in 2019 that allowed Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters to keep track of Chinese police.

Apple has also previously removed apps from the iTunes Store, paid podcasts and Apple TV+ services in China, as well as removing third-party VPN apps from the App Store and eliminating the flag of Taiwan emoji from the keyboard.

In 2021 Apple was criticised for removing one of the most popular Quran apps from its app store in China.

Critics argue that Apple has been hypocritical for taking a vocal stance on issues such as privacy and human rights in the United States and the West, but remaining silent on the same issues in other countries.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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