Connections between phones rather than through the Internet are used by protesters to elude surveillance. New rules will make this impossible—with a little help from Apple.
by Zhou Kexin
A new regulation is coming in China, and it seems so technical that many may miss its real scope. On June 6, the Cyberspace Administration of the People’s Republic of China published draft “Regulations on the Administration of Information Disseminated Through Wireless Ad Hoc Networks.” As usual in China’s pseudo-democracy, drafts of new laws and regulations are published with the ostensible aim of soliciting the citizens’ opinions, but the latter never change the substance of the provisions.
To understand why the CCP wants to regulate wireless ad hoc networks, we should explain what they are and go back to the protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and throughout China in 2022 against COVID restrictions.
Wireless ad hoc networks connect devices such as cell phones and tablets between themselves without using the Internet. While the technology has also military uses, the most common application is Apple’s AirDrop. It uses Bluetooth to create Wi-Fi networks between Apple devices that allow to share files. If I have a text or a document on my iPhone and want to read it on my iPad or share it with a friend who is sitting at the same table, I can use AirDrop rather than emailing it. AirDrop would identify compatible devices near me and ask me with whom I want to share the file.
AirDrop is popular in China and protesters in Hong Kong in 2019 discovered that it had an unadvertised advantage. Since it does not use the Internet, it eludes Internet censorship. While originally intended to allow users to share files between multiple devices of the same owner (e.g., an iPad and an iPhone) or between friends, nothing prevents its use to send documents and pictures to unknown passersby, provided they are close enough to the sender and have compatible smartphones or tablets.
Protesters in Hong Kong started to use AirDrop to pass messages to passersby or unknown people in the same crowd. The messages were repeatedly disseminated from one protester to the other, since most of them had AirDrop-compatible devices.
When protests erupted in Mainland China against the COVID-19 lockdown and the Zero COVID policy, young protesters knew of the Hong Kong precedent and started using AirDrop to fool the police control of the Internet.
As we know, these protests ultimately led to the end of the Zero COVID policy. But they had also another consequence. The CCP persuaded Apple to include in its November 2022 iOS 16.1.1 update a limitation to AirDrop applicable only to those iPhones whose serial numbers indicated they were sold in China. After updating, iPhones were no longer able to use AirDrop to share files with users not in the contact list of the owner and could receive messages from unknowns only for ten minutes before switching off. Apple did not advertise the new China-only AirDrop feature, but it was discovered by Chinese users. They could elude it by not installing 16.1.1 and subsequent iOS updates, although this had other disadvantages.
While it likely continues its secret cooperation with Apple, China is now introducing the new regulation. It does not apply to Apple only but to all companies that offer services like AirDrop or may offer them in the future. It compels them to adopt technical measures limiting the possibility of users to share information with unknowns, and more broadly preventing them from “using the service to publish or forward illegal information.” Providers “should take measures to prevent and resist the production, copying, and publishing of negative information” and to identify and report to the authorities those who try to share “bad” files. They should also have plans to cooperate with authorities in “emergency situations,” meaning riots and protests.
The cat-and-mouse game between the CCP and technology continues. The Party tries to eliminate all possible means of eluding its censorship, but protesters would likely find a way to circumvent the provisions or use systems alternative to AirDrop.