Encrypted messenger Signal suddenly inaccessible in China

Signal’s website was blocked on 15 March under Beijing’s ‘Great Firewall’

Adam Smith
Tuesday 16 March 2021 13:05

Encrypted messaging app Signal appears to be unavailable in mainland China, with the app seemingly banned in the country.

The app allows end-to-end encrypted messaging, meaning that no malicious individuals or government surveillance would be able to see the contents of the messages without access to specific digital keys.

Signal had its website blocked sometime after 5 March and on or before 15 March, according to GreatFire - a group that monitors internet censorship in the country.

The app apparently remains available in Apple’s App Store in China although it is unclear for how long that will remain the case; Apple and Google’s App Stores vary based on geography, and it is possible that the Chinese government could push the smartphone giant to pull the app.

While The Independent was not able to test the issue, CNBC reports that they tested Signal on three different devices and messages did not go through. The app remains working, however, when users enable a VPN that uses servers outside of China.

Techcrunch reports that Signal has over 500,000 installations in China, and recently crossed 100 million downloads globally on both iOS and Android.

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Signal recently received a significant uptick in downloads following a backlash against WhatsApp’s privacy policy, but it’s unlikely a movement of the same scale happened in China.

WeChat, an app similar to WhatsApp but with multiple extra social media functions and payment processing, is the main chatting app in China, and as such the backlash against WhatsApp - which is blocked in the country - was likely not noticed as prominently.

Signal did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Independent. The Cyberspace Administration of China could not immediately be reached for comment.

Due to the huge amount of state censorship in China, encrypted messaging apps are vital. It has been claimed by a report from cyber research group Citizen Lab that WeChat censored messages about the coronavirus on its platform – stopping them from being sent through their servers.

However, it is not only China that is looking to gain access to its citizens’ messages. The governments of the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, and Japan have signed a statement asking technology companies to provide a backdoor into encrypted services.

The governments’ claim that it would allow crimes like child exploitations to be stopped more easily, but critics have pointed out that weakening security is not the answer to tackling crime.

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