China blocks WhatsApp in run-up to Communist Party Congress

By Apoorv Perti

Shanghai, September 25: China has blocked the WhatsApp messaging service, security experts confirmed to The New York Times. WhatsApp already faced disruptions in the recent months to its video chat and image sending services; now users are unable to send texts as well.

China’s Communist Party congress

Nadim Kobeissi an applied cryptographer at Symbolic Software, a Paris-based research firm which also monitors digital censorship in China, said “it seems that what we initially monitored as censorship of WhatsApp’s photo, video and voice note sharing capabilities in July has now evolved to what appears to be consistent text messaging blocking and throttling across China”.

China may have recently upgraded its firewall to detect and block the NoiseSocket protocol that WhatsApp uses to send texts, in addition to already blocking the HTTPS/TLS that WhatsApp uses to send photos and videos, Kobeissi’s research found. He added, “it took time for the Chinese firewall to adapt to this new protocol so that it could also target text messages.” Symbolic Software noticed app disruptions beginning last Wednesday.

“If you’re only allowed to drive one mile per hour, you’re not going to drive on that road, even if it’s not technically blocked,” says Lokman Tsui, an internet communications specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

The Chinese authorities have a history of mostly, but not entirely, blocking internet services, as well as slowing them down so much that they become useless. The ongoing censorship has prompted many in China to switch to other communications methods that function smoothly and quickly but are easily monitored by the Chinese authorities. One such method is the Shenzhen-based Chinese internet company Tencent’s WeChat app, which already has 963 million active users.

Lokman Tsui, an internet communications specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says “If you’re only allowed to drive one mile per hour, you’re not going to drive on that road, even if it’s not technically blocked.” He added that some users might still be able to use the WhatsApp service.

China’s disabling of the service is a setback for Facebook, which has been banned in China since 2009 and owns WhatsApp. The messaging service was the last of Facebook’s products to still be available in mainland China; its Instagram image-sharing app is also unavailable.Chief executive of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg has been pushing to re-enter the Chinese market for years and has even been studying the Chinese language.

 

The heightened censorship coincides with Beijing’s preparation for the upcoming 19th Chinese Communist Party congress. Held once every five years, the congress chooses the party’s leadership, which in turn runs the country. WhatsApp may have been a target because the app offers end-to-end encryption, which keeps users’ messages private.

Below is a video explaining this recent chain of events:

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