China bans Facebook messaging service WhatsApp

The Chinese government has disabled Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp, the New York Times reports.

Nadim Kobeissi, an applied cryptographer at Paris-based research firm Symbolic Software, told the Times his company began noticing slowdowns in the service Wednesday. By Monday, the block had become comprehensive.

Authorities blocked video-chat and file-sharing functions within WhatsApp in mid-July, but the app’s messaging capabilities, which employ a rare and strong form of encryption, remained functional. The government lifted bans on video chat and file sharing later, but has since disabled the app in its entirety, reports say.

WhatsApp’s messaging service uses a renowned end-to-end encryption technique. As the Times explains it, even Facebook itself cannot decode messages sent via the app. The encryption method is not widely used and is therefore difficult to compromise.

But the ban, as the Times points out, indicates that Chinese authorities have developed a means by which to breach WhatsApp messaging encryption.

“This is not the typical technical method in which the Chinese government censors something,” Kobeissi said.

Censorship of various technological communication services is commonplace in the country. If the government does not disable a service entirely, it slows down that service to such a degree that it becomes unusable.

“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,” Lokman Tsui, an internet communications specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained to the Times.

The goal of the censorship is to funnel users toward a handful of communication services that the government can easily monitor. WeChat is one such service. It is similar to WhatsApp except that the former, according to the Times, offers broader functionality.

Tencent, the company that runs WeChat, is based in Shenzhen and has said that it will comply with the government’s requests for information. In total, 963 million people use WeChat, the Times says.

Services like WhatsApp and WeChat have largely replaced e-mail in China, and are vital to many business operations. A large number of China-based businesses were unwilling to use WeChat, whether because of the threat of surveillance or some other reason.

Some former WhatsApp users in China expressed frustration on social media, the Times reports.

“Losing contact with my clients, forced back to the age of telephone and email for work now,” one user complained on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site.

“Even WhatsApp is blocked now? I’m going to be out of business soon,” another person said via the same site.

WhatsApp was the last Facebook product available in mainland China, the Times says. The country banned the company’s main social media site in 2009. Instagram, another Facebook offering, is disabled as well.

The WhatsApp ban represents a setback for the social media behemoth, whose founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has been advocating and taking steps toward re-entering the Chinese market.

The handful of American-created communication services China does tolerate include Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s FaceTime. The former does not employ end-to-end encryption, the Times points out, and is, therefore, easier for the government to monitor. The latter does use end-to-end encryption but is less secure than WhatsApp.

The Times notes that the Office of the United States Trade Representative is investigating whether Chinese authorities have violated the intellectual property rights of American citizens. The Office has not clarified whether it will consider the bans as part of the investigation, or merely look for cases in which China has stolen US technology.

The WhatsApp ban comes just prior to the country’s Communist Party Congress on October 18, during which authorities appoint the leaders of the party, who in turn run the country.

According to the Times, the meeting, which the country holds once every five years, will likely reinstall President Xi Jinping as party leader. The question remains as to who will join Xi on the Standing Committee of Politburo, the party’s highest ranking group.

Under Xi’s leadership, the Times notes, China has tightened censorship, closed several churches and jailed a number of human rights activists.

Featured image via Pixabay

Continued Apple-Qualcomm Legal Battle Leads to iPhone Ban Request

Qualcomm has requested the U.S. International Trade Commission to ban the import of certain iPhones that do not use Qualcomm chips, as well as ban Apple from selling any devices that have already been imported. The complaint accuses Apple’s iPhone of infringing six of Qualcomm’s mobile patents.

If successful, the ban would affect the importing and selling of the iPhone 7, 7 Plus and possibly even future iPhones. These include the models running on both AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as including certain iPads. Instead of Qualcomm chips, the devices utilize Intel’s 4G chips, while phones from other carriers including Verizon use Qualcomm’s processors. While these parameters limit the scope of the ban, the limited scope also increases the likelihood of the ban going through. Furthermore, by targeting devices that do not use Qualcomm’s chips, means that the ban avoids hurting Qualcomm’s chip business, which makes a lot of revenue from supplying Apple.

According to Don Rosenberg, Qualcomm’s general counsel, the crux of Qualcomm’s argument is that Apple utilizes its technology without paying for it. Despite negotiations on both sides to address this, neither has budged in compromising the price and yet Apple still continues to use the technology despite infringing on Qualcomm’s patents. This left Qualcomm with no choice but to request the aid of the U.S. Trade Commission.

The ITC will start investigating the complaint in August, followed by an expected trial date sometime next year, meaning that any decision, and ban, would not be implemented for 18 months. Qualcomm is also pursuing a new patent infringement case in the Southern District of California. Rosenberg expects this second case to be put on hold until the ITC makes a decision concerning the first, but acts as a backup plan should the first case end in a ruling in favor of Apple.

This is not the first fight in a drawn out tussle between the two companies, with Apple also pursuing legal action against Qualcomm. Apple has reported that Qualcomm has been engaging in illegal business practices at the expense of Apple and the entire industry by forcing companies to pay royalties for technological breakthroughs that Apple believes Qualcomm has not been responsible for. Apple has repeatedly stated that they believe in intellectual property and respect its implications, but Qualcomm has refused to negotiate a reasonable price and expecting an unfair rate for use of the standard technology used in Apple products.

Apple and Qualcomm have been engaged in legal fights over patents since January, with Apple observing that Qualcomm did not give fair licensing terms for its technology, which Qualcomm justifies by stating that no modern mobile device, including the iPhone, would be possible without relying on Qualcomm technology.

The six patents in question are all responsible in some way for ensuring mobile devices performance can operate with improved efficiency while limiting the power use so the battery is preserved. One of the patents covers technology that bundles radio waves use by mobile devices for connections, providing network options that enable the quickest transition onto the fastest connection radio frequencies. This allows mobile devices to stream in high-quality graphics while also maintaining and increased battery life, two aspects that are fundamental to iPhones wishing to push the boundaries of mobile devices can do.

The technological capabilities apply to current iPhones in production but are also expected to play a role in future iPhones, which means a further infringement of Qualcomm’s technology. While it is not sure as to whether the ban will be successful, the limited scope on specific devices does increase the chances of success. Also, should these legal battles gain public attention, then the hit to the reputation of Apple could see customers boycotting a device that uses others technology without respecting intellectual property. However, this case can also backfire, should customers agree that Qualcomm’s royalties are not justified by the use of technology, or that the patents themselves are not justified.

Apple has won a legal battle before in order to ban certain Samsung phones that infringed on its patents, however, the devices in question were already old, and no longer in mainstream circulation within the U.S. anymore. Therefore, there will be some nuances that differ that court case ruling to this current one.

Featured Image via Flickr/Kārlis Dambrāns

Germany Bans Doll Over Suspicions of Espionage

Dolls have been used by children for centuries. They’re good companions and even pose as a good listener. However, this doll might be a little too good at listening. Good enough to ban her from Germany under suspicion of being a device of espionage. German regulators have found suspicion in the seemingly harmless doll called My Friend Cayla.

It’s said that the doll is able to share what it hears. This means the doll could be taken over by a third party. The doll has recently been banned in Germany. The president, Jochen Homann, of the Germany’s Federal Network Agency,  which is also called the Bundessnetzagentur, announced this recently. Homann’s agency has the job of overlooking all electronic privacy. Homann is even more adamant about protecting children, who he says are the most vulnerable members of society.

What makes Cayla so dangerous to consumers is her natural appearance. She seems to be an everyday doll that shows no sign that she is collecting and transmitting everything she hears. She reports these things to two companies, Genesis, which makes Cayla and another company in the U.S. called Nuance.

Nuance responded to this by saying that it in no way shares “Voice data collected from or on behalf of any of our customers with any of our customers.”

And even though her suspicious nature has caused her to banned in Germany, My Friend Cayla is still on sale in the United States. In fact, she can be purchased on Amazon, but not on sites of stores like Toys R Us or Wal-Mart. Toys R Us doesn’t offer the toy in stores either.

In order to fully ban the doll in Germany, German regulators appealed a federal law against espionage devices. Anyone who is caught trying to sell My Friend Cayla or even caught owning one in Germany will be slapped with a fine of 25,000 euros. The regulators say that even though this is effective, they don’t plan on perusing action against parents who’ve already bought the doll for their children. The agency hoped that once this news has gotten out to all its citizens, parents will take it upon themselves to get rid of the doll.

Though the Federal Network Agency is doing what it can to make sure that Cayla does not reach any more children in Germany, their concerns about the doll are not the first ones to arise. In fact, privacy and consumer advocates in the United States filed complaints against My Friend Cayla during the Christmas holiday shopping season. They were unhappy with the Internet-connected doll and the threat she posed to children and other users since the doll can be linked to any smartphone device to share the voice of someone or record what is being told.

A fraction of the complaint made by Claire Gartland of the Consumer Privacy Project was described by NPR’s Brian Naylor who stated,

“Gartland says the conversations that Cayla records are sent to servers at a company called Genesis, which makes the doll, and to another company called Nuance, which makes voice-recognition software for this any many other products. Nuance also has a database used by law enforcement and military and intelligence agencies that matches voice prints.”

Brian also had an interaction with Cayla himself where he asks her if he can tell her a secret. Cayla in turn replies, “Sure go ahead. Be very quiet though. I promise not to tell anyone. It’s just between you and me because we are friends.”

Even the Norway Consumer Council has urged people not to purchase the doll. They even made a video titled “Watch how this doll fails.” In the video, NCC’s technical director demonstrates the threats the doll poses and even has an interaction with it near the end where the doll says “I don’t know” when asked if it can be trusted.

Lithuania Bans Energy Drink Sales to Minors

The country of Lithuania has just voted on the ban of selling energy drinks to minors. It is the first country to have made such a move to protect its youth. It is a move that will likely have governments around the world contemplating their own legislature concerning highly caffeinated beverages. Almantas Kranauskas, a Lithuanian Health Ministry official, stated “We hope that some countries of the EU that don’t have a clear position will follow the Lithuanian way.”

There is an absolute trend that those belonging to the lower age demographics turn to the energy filled concoctions on a regular basis. According to a study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority, 68% of children age 10 to 18 drink the beverages on at least a semi regular basis. Such high levels of caffeine, sugar, and other concentrated chemicals will limit development in such young minds and bodies.

The U.K. will soon requires warning labels on cans with more than 150 milligrams of caffeine per liter. German consumer watch groups have also called for tighter restrictions, though nothing has been done. The U.S. has had it fair share of energy drink controversy as well. There have been several lawsuits claiming energy drinks such as Monster are responsible for people’s deaths. At least one such lawsuit was that of the death of a teenager filed by his mother.

There probably should be greater control over energy drinks, especially when it involves children. Warning labels might help and prohibiting the sale to minors could make a difference. Ultimately though, everyone is responsible for themselves. A can or two every few months will not most likely lead to a shorter life. Drinking 5 cans a day probably will. The key to life is moderation and self control. Even if it might be hard to do sometimes.