Jan 10, 2024 - Technology

Chinese company can now break AirDrop encryption, state government claims

Illustration of chains and padlock wrapped around a phone.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A China-based company now has the ability to break the encryption surrounding Apple's AirDrop feature, according to a statement from China's Justice Bureau.

Why it matters: China-based law enforcement officials say they've already been able to identify a person who shared a video while on the Beijing subway "with inappropriate remarks" using the popular file transfer tool, per an English translation of the statement.

  • Multiple other suspects "involved in the case" have also been identified.

The big picture: AirDrop has become a key tool for protesters in China advocating for democracy.

  • In 2019, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong used AirDrop to share information about the events using AirDrop to evade police detection.
  • Protesters in Beijing also used AirDrop to spread pro-democracy messages to others while on subway cars in 2022.
  • In 2022, Apple placed a 10-minute cap for people to receive an AirDrop file in China in response to protesters' use.

Between the lines: AirDrop allows protestors to bypass traditional government interventions — such as internet shutdowns — because it operates on wireless connections between phone signals, instead of internet networks.

  • This has made it difficult for government authorities to identify who is using AirDrop, until this week's encryption announcement.

Details: Law enforcement handed several iPhones over to China-based company Wangshendongjian Technology to study how the owners used the AirDrop function to share images, videos and other files.

  • Wangshendongjian Technology's forensics experts analyzed AirDrop records to create a so-called "rainbow table" — a go-to password hacking tool — to read the hashed values stored in these devices and decipher the phone numbers and email addresses associated with the senders, according to the Justice Bureau's statement.
  • AirDrop is used across all Apple devices, including iPhones, iPads and Macs.
  • Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yes, but: China is known to spread disinformation to discredit dissidents and nation-state adversaries.

  • Last year, China-backed researchers also claimed that they now had a powerful enough quantum computer that could break modern-day encryption standards — although U.S. experts have questioned the merits of those claims.

Go deeper: Exclusive: New Twitter disinfo campaign targeting 2 Chinese activists

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