Chinese authorities have claimed they now have access to a tool that enables them to identify users of Apple’s AirDrop feature, commonly used for sending encrypted messages to bypass government censorship.

China’s Judicial Bureau reported that Beijing’s Wangshendongjian Forensic Appraisal Institute had created a device that allowed them to break through “the technical difficulties of anonymous traceability through AirDrop,” adding that the move had enhanced the efficiency and accuracy of case detection, and helped prevent the further spread of inappropriate remarks and “potential bad influence.”

In a statement, it said that a video had been circulated with “inappropriate remarks,” using the AirDrop function and that others had begun sharing the same. “Therefore, it was necessary to find the source and determine their identity as soon as possible to avoid any negative impact,” officials added.

The bureau also claimed that the project was also targeted at people with “malicious purposes,” who would use the function to send “illegal pictures, videos, audio and […] illegally delivering and spreading bad information to nearby people in crowded places such as subways, buses and shopping malls.”

It was also suggested that since AirDrop does not need an internet connection for delivery, “this behavior cannot be effectively monitored through conventional network monitoring methods,” which is why they say they appointed the lab to assist with their security apparatus.

Why does China want to restrict AirDrop?

Government officials had previously sought to restrict the use of mobile file-sharing services, in order to stop activists from mobilizing. File-sharing services such as Bluetooth and AirDrop have become essential instruments in the country, where the so-called Great Firewall has led to one of the most tightly controlled internet environments.

In recent years, AirDrop has become a popular tool among anti-government protesters for organizing and communicating their political demands. For example, in 2022, activists used AirDrop to distribute anti-Xi Jinping posters on the Shanghai subway, coinciding with the Chinese president’s anticipation of a historic third term as the country’s leader.

Apple has faced criticism for reportedly appeasing Beijing after it released a new version of the feature that limits users to a 10-minute window for receiving files from non-contacts. After this period, users can only receive files from contacts. There was also widespread backlash during the COVID-19 pandemic when workers at an Apple supplier factory in Zhengzhou were forced to work under poor conditions.

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Suswati Basu

Freelance journalist

Suswati Basu is a multilingual, award-winning editor and the founder of the intersectional literature channel, How To Be Books. She was shortlisted for the Guardian Mary Stott Prize and longlisted for the Guardian International Development Journalism Award. With 18 years of experience in the media industry, Suswati has held significant roles such as head of audience and deputy editor for NationalWorld news, digital editor for Channel 4 News and ITV News. She has also contributed to the Guardian and received training at the BBC As an audience, trends, and SEO specialist, she has participated in panel events alongside Google. Her career also includes a seven-year tenure at the leading AI company Dataminr, where she led the Europe desk and launched the company's first employee resource group for disabilities. Before this, Suswati worked as a journalist in China for four years, investigating censorship and the Great Firewall, and acquired proficiency in several languages. In recent years, Suswati has been nominated for six awards, including the Independent Podcast Awards, International Women's Podcast Awards, and the Anthem Awards for her literary social affairs show. Her areas of speciality span a wide range, including technology, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), social politics, mental health, and nonfiction books.