Any company that wants to do business in China has to abide by the draconian censorship laws imposed by the country’s government. Even Apple, one of the most valuable companies in the world, has to play ball. According to security researcher Patrick Wardle, Apple’s efforts to appease the Chinese government led to an annoying iPhone bug that it only just fixed in the most recent software update, after the bug plagued users for two years.
The bug is specific enough to make anyone suspicious. With certain system configurations, apps that displayed the word “Taiwan” or the Taiwanese flag emoji would immediately crash the phone. According to Wardle, this bug was simple to reproduce on iPhones with country codes that included China or language settings including Chinese. English can still be set as the primary language, though.
Apple’s iOS is closed source, unlike Android. That made it difficult to track down the cause of the bug. By observing the phone’s memory and system restore files, Wardle managed to extract some of the code libraries. The bug traced back to a feature devised by Apple to classify messages based on the emoji they contain. Apple had configured iOS to flag messages, both types and received, that included the Taiwan flag emoji.
The intended behavior of this code is not to crash your phone, obviously. If an iPhone is localized to China, iOS merely is supposed to remove that emoji. The bug affected almost every messaging app including iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. In China, messaging apps didn’t crash, but would not display the forbidden emoji. For US users plagued by the bug, they could at least temporarily stop the crashes by setting the phone’s region to China and then immediately changing it back.
After losing mainland China to communist forces in 1949, the Republic of China relocated to Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, leading to a great deal of tension that extends even to emoji. Wardle notes that Apple probably created code in iOS to remove Taiwan’s flag emoji at the behest of the Chinese government, and that code is the cause of the suspicious crashes. These restrictions drove Google to end its Chinese business operations a decade ago.
Luckily, that code won’t cause a problem for non-Chinese iPhones anymore. Wardle reported the bug to Apple, which has finally issued a patch. As of the latest 11.4.1 update, users won’t crash their phones simply by typing “Taiwan.”
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