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Chinese state-backed experts found a way to identify people who use Apple’s encrypted AirDrop messaging service.

Apple’s AirDrop service lets users send content to other nearby Apple devices in an encoded manner without an internet connection, so they cannot be viewed by other people. This service was reportedly widely used by participants in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. Following this, Apple has also limited file-sharing for Chinese iPhone users in 2022, after protests against the zero-COVID policy.

According to Techxplore, experts at the Beijing Justice Appraisal Institute found a way to reveal an iPhone’s encrypted device log, with which they could identify an AirDrop user’s phone number and email accounts.

It was said the technique “cracked the tough technological problem of the transmission of inappropriate information with anonymous traceability via AirDrop”, but the statement did not mention whether the technique had led to any arrests or convictions.

Back in late 2022, there were widespread reports of people in China using AirDrop to spread digital leaflets criticizing the government, after which Apple released an update for the AirDrop feature with which Apple users in China could only receive files from unknown contacts for a 10-minute window that automatically shuts off (a feature that did not have a time limit before).

It is known that Chinese authorities have been using extensive digital surveillance methods for years to silence opposition within the population. Examples are that most social media apps require users to register using their real names, or that people must provide proof of identification to purchase SIM cards or install home broadband connections.

Apple has long faced criticism for seemingly bending to the increasingly oppressive requirements of the Chinese government, like when it removed a Hong Kong map application in 2019 that was used by pro-democracy protesters under claims that it endangered police after China warned the company to drop the app.