China users re­port What­sApp chaos amid cen­sor­ship fears

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

BEI­JING: Users of What­sApp in China and se­cu­rity re­searchers have re­ported wide­spread ser­vice dis­rup­tions amid fears that the pop­u­lar mes­sag­ing ser­vice may be at least par­tially blocked by au­thor­i­ties in the world's most pop­u­lous coun­try.

What­sApp users in the coun­try re­ported yes­ter­day on other so­cial me­dia plat­forms that the app was partly in­ac­ces­si­ble un­less vir­tual pri­vate net­work soft­ware was used to cir­cum­vent China's cen­sor­ship ap­pa­ra­tus, known col­lo­qui­ally as The Great Fire­wall.

What­sApp, which is owned by Facebook and of­fers end-to-end en­cryp­tion, has a rel­a­tively small but loyal fol­low­ing among Chi­nese users seek­ing a greater de­gree of pri­vacy from gov­ern­ment snoop­ing than af­forded by pop­u­lar do­mes­tic app WeChat, which is ubiq­ui­tous but closely mon­i­tored and fil­tered.

Ques­tions over What­sApp's sta­tus come at a po­lit­i­cally fraught time in China. The gov­ern­ment is in the midst of pre­par­ing for a sen­si­tive party congress while Chi­nese cen­sors this week revved up a sprawl­ing ef­fort to scrub all men­tion of Liu Xiaobo, the No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate who died Thurs­day in gov­ern­ment cus­tody.

A re­port this week by the Univer­sity of Toronto's Cit­i­zen Lab de­tailed how Chi­nese cen­sors were able to in­ter­cept, in real time, im­ages com­mem­o­rat­ing Liu in pri­vate one-on-one chats on WeChat, a feat that hinted at the gov­ern­ment's im­age recog­ni­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

It ap­peared that pic­tures were also the fo­cus of the move to censor What­sApp. Late yes­ter­day, users in China could send texts over What­sApp without the use of VPNs, but not im­ages. Nadim Kobeissi, a cryp­tog­ra­phy re­searcher based in Paris who has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the What­sApp dis­rup­tion, said he be­lieved The Great Fire­wall was only block­ing ac­cess to What­sApp servers that route me­dia be­tween users, while leav­ing servers that han­dle text mes­sages un­touched.

Kobeissi said voice mes­sages also ap­peared to be blocked. But there was no ev­i­dence to sug­gest that Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties were de­crypt­ing What­sApp mes­sages, he added. A Chi­nese cen­sor­ship re­searcher known by his pseu­do­nym Char­lie Smith said that au­thor­i­ties ap­peared to be block­ing non-text What­sApp mes­sages whole­sale pre­cisely be­cause they have not been able to se­lec­tively block con­tent on the plat­form like they have with WeChat, which is pro­duced by Shen­zhen-based in­ter­net gi­ant Ten­cent and legally bound to co­op­er­ate with Chi­nese se­cu­rity agen­cies.

Be­cause What­sApp con­tent is en­crypted, "they have moved to brute censor all non-text con­tent," Smith said in an email. "It would not be sur­pris­ing to find that every­thing on What­sApp gets blocked, forc­ing users in China to use un­en­crypted, mon­i­tored and cen­sored ser­vices like WeChat."

Chi­nese for­eign min­istry spokesman Lu Kang said he had no in­for­ma­tion on the is­sue when asked by re­porters. Facebook, which owns What­sApp, did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

What­sApp is one of the world's most widely used mes­sag­ing ser­vices, with over 1.2 bil­lion users.

In 2015, China blocked Tele­gram, an­other en­crypted mes­sag­ing ser­vice, af­ter it be­came a pop­u­lar plat­form for ac­tivists and dis­si­dents to share in­for­ma­tion. China has also blocked Twit­ter, Facebook and YouTube for years, with of­fi­cials ar­gu­ing that for­eign so­cial me­dia ser­vices op­er­at­ing be­yond their con­trol pose a threat to China's na­tional se­cu­rity.

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