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China Shuts Down Phone Services For VPN Users

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

The Chinese authorities have taken their fight against encrypted messaging services and Virtual Private Networks to the next level. As per recent media reports, the authorities have shut down mobile numbers of a number of users who were suspected of using encrypted services on their mobile devices. The reports also said that such incidents are only being reported from the restive Xinjiang region so it is clear that the government is taking this unusual and extreme step for security reasons.

The purging of mobile numbers started soon after terror attacks unfolded in Paris. Mobile users who relied on VPN services to bypass the tough censorship laws of the country or were using encrypted messaging services on their mobile devices received a SMS informing them about the impending shut down of their mobile numbers. The message also said that the step was being taken in accordance with the law and even asked the affected users to contact the cyberpolice for more information. When the users contacted the authorities, they were specifically told that their numbers were being purged because of using a VPN or foreign messaging service (such as Whatsapp, Instagram etc.). As per the users affected by the move, they received just 2 hour’s notice before their number was shut down.

It is not clear how many users had their mobile numbers suspended by the authorities but an official did confirm that users of all the three mobile services providers offering services in the area were affected by the move. Affected users who visited police stations to get their numbers reinstated were bluntly told that their number was suspended because they used anonymity services to bypass the Great Firewall of China. Most users had to show their IDs and were told to wait for a few days before their number would come back online. Users were also warned not to use VPNs once their number gets reinstated.

Xinjiang has long served as a testing ground for online surveillance and censorship programs so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the authorities tested this strategy in the region. It is worth noting that the internet was shut down for almost six months in the Xinjiang region after deadly clashes erupted there in 2009. Since then, the region has witnessed increased levels of censorship and surveillance which are even higher than the usual Chinese standards.

The shutting down of phone services for VPN users is the latest attempt by the Chinese authorities to curb their use. Earlier attempts have included blocking of specific VPN protocols (PPTP, OpenVPN) or services of specific VPN service providers. While the authorities were successful in blocking many encrypted services earlier, a lot of Chinese users are still able to bypass government firewalls with the help of VPN services that are still working in the country. The move to block phone services of VPN users is an unprecedented one and it certainly reflects the determination and urgency on the part of the Chinese government.

April 23, 2016

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