Censorship concerns grow in China as WhatsApp file sharing function disrupted

After the death of Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, and days before a politically delicate Communist Party congress, Chinese users of popular messaging service WhatsApp are reporting disruption. The news comes after China banned Telegram, another end-to-end encrypted messaging app.

Using other social platforms, the country’s WhatsApp users on Tuesday began reporting issues with the file sharing function. Users could send and receive texts, but not pictures, videos or voice recordings, the AP reports (via The Japan Times).

The outage occurs as domestic concerns mount about China’s longstanding censorship practices, limiting users to locally developed (and tightly regulated) apps and services. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are outright banned in China.

All signs point to regulators pushing users into adopting WeChat, a platform like WhatsApp in many respects, except for one, rather vital, aspect: end-to-end encryption. The reason? To monitor people “en masse,” according to cryptography researcher Nadim Kobeissi.

Censors cannot block text messages in WhatsApp because, like Telegram, it encrypts individual chats end-to-end. And because media files shared through WhatsApp are handled through a dedicated server, censors forcefully blocked it outright, Kobeissi believes.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab recently uncovered that Chinese censors could intercept and block images shared in individual chats on WeChat commemorating Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and political reform advocate who died of liver cancer on July 13 while in government custody.

If the WhatsApp outage is any indication, the effort appears to have been ramped up to include other messaging platforms.

Using the pseudonym Charlie Smith, a censorship researcher relayed to the AP in an email conversation that, due to WhatsApp’s powerful message encryption mechanism, “they have moved to brute censor all non-text content.”

“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,” Smith added.

Yet another encrypted messaging service, Signal, also appears to be affected, with Chinese users reporting patchy service and delays.

As avid readers should know, the Russian government recently pulled a similar move by threatening Telegram with a shutdown if the Kremlin is not granted access to user data for security purposes. Telegram ultimately ceded to Russia’s demands, handing over data that both satisfies the government while protecting users’ privacy, evading censorship in the country.

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