Apple has built-in censorship features that are apparently in place to placate the Chinese government, according to a report by Wired magazine.
"Basically, Apple added some code to iOS with the goal that phones in China wouldn't display a Taiwanese flag," Patrick Wardle, a former NSA staffer, told Wired.
According to Wardle, "there was a bug in that code."
How was this discovered?
According to the report, Wardle was attending a security conference in San Francisco, when a Taiwanese friend asked to meet for coffee and to tell him she believed China was hacking her iPhone.
Wardle, who is also a “prominent Apple-focused hacker who founded Digita Security,” was skeptical.
But something strange was happening. Every time the Taiwanese flag emoji appeared on his friend’s phone, the app that displayed it caused the phone to “instantly crash,” Wired reported.
Essentially, anyone could crash her phone by sending her a text message with the flag.
"I could send her a message and this emoji of death would crash her phone," Wardle told Wired.
As it turned out, China wasn’t hacking his friend’s phone.
Instead, it was an unintentional bug in a very intentional censorship feature, one that Apple includes in every iPhone in the world in an apparent attempt to placate the Chinese government.
Since at least early 2017, iOS has included that Chinese censorship function: Switch your iPhone's location setting to China, and the Taiwanese flag emoji essentially disappears from your phone, evaporating from its library of emojis and appearing as a "missing" emoji in any text that appears on the screen. That code likely represents a favor from Apple to the Chinese government, which for the last 70 years has maintained that Taiwan is a part of China and has no legitimate independent government. Disappearing Taiwan's flag in China is just one of several concessions Apple has made to the country's dictatorship, such as moving Chinese Apple users' data to servers located in China and removing censorship-skirting VPNs from the App Store there.”
Wardle told Wired he doesn’t know how many devices are impacted or why it may only impact certain devices. He suspects, however, that a phone’s location and language settings might be responsible, according to the report.
What was the explanation?
In mid-June, Wardle informed Apple about the problem. This week, Apple released a patch with a statement that "a denial-of-service issue was addressed in improved memory handling."
But the Taiwanese flag censorship still remains and Apple was mum on explaining how that works, the report states.
Wardle says it means something.
"If Apple had never tried to appease the Chinese government, the bug would never have been introduced in the first place," Wardle said.