Is China Destroying Mobile Devices with VPNs Installed?

Twitter was buzzing last weekend with a “wild story” out of China involving censorship, VPNs and an unexplainably inoperable iPhone.

A Destroyed iPhone

A Twitter user by the name of Comrade Balding shared a story about a friend’s iPhone and how it mysteriously stopped working in China one day (no calls, texts, data). The guy went to an Apple store in Hong Kong to get it fixed, at which time the sales representative told him he needed a new phone.

The reason his phone mysteriously stopped working? He had a VPN installed.

He was told China has the ability to see if someone is using a VPN and can then “destroy” their phone as a result. Apparently this incident is commonplace – and no surprise to Apple staff, either, although they don’t know specifically how phones are being broken.

Tall Tale or Scary Reality?

While we can’t say firsthand this is accurate (it didn’t happen to us, after all) this story seems a bit too plausible to be ignored. Given what we know about Chinese censorship and the Chinese government’s increasing assaults on VPNs, we’d venture to guess it’s true.

Chinese law requires the registration of VPNs or else they are deemed illegal. In practice, this regulation means that the government can monitor the VPNs and impose regulations on the operators. Furthermore, they can surveil and collect information on the users of these VPNs – both whom is using a VPN and what they are doing with it. They can also control access to content via the VPN or impart censorship. In essence, this renders the VPN completely useless as its primary uses of privacy, security and accessing an unrestricted Internet are prohibited.

China also increased VPN blocking dramatically over the past year; VyprVPN experienced at least one blocking incident per month during the second half of 2017 alone (compare that to a few incidents per year previously). News about China’s now-infamous VPN ban, slated to take effect in February 2018, is also circulating.

So What’s Going On?

It seems likely China has found a way to identify VPN users, and in instances where they cannot surveil, censor or exert control – meaning in instances when people have “illegal” VPNs installed on their devices – they are taking alternate methods to control Internet access. If the story is true, they’re destroying devices presumably in an attempt to cut off communication, or at very least deter people from using a VPN again (if they determine this is why their phone was destroyed, they’re less likely to re-install a VPN the second time around).

One thing that seems odd about this approach, however, is the statement from the original Twitter story that Wi-Fi still works on these phones. It leaves us with some questions:

  • Is China doing this “destroying” at the telco level? They plan to enact the VPN ban through the three largest state-owned telecoms whom they’re requiring to block access, so they could be complicit here, too
  • Is leaving Wi-Fi enabled a way for the government to continue to monitor the device (are they snooping via remote Wi-Fi connection)?
  • Is Apple choosing to turn a blind eye to this practice, as opposed to fighting back, and in doing so again complying with censorship?
  • Are these VPNs only operating over data or cell networks, meaning Wi-Fi access does not need destruction?
  • Or, simply, is Wi-Fi inconsequential once the phone is destroyed and inoperable overall?

As with much censorship news out of China, it’s hard to say what’s really going on here. Only time will reveal the answer to these questions, and we’ll keep an eye out for more details. We’re taking a deep dive into China’s censorship situation overall, so check back for more posts on related topics! Here are a few links to get you started:

Katie Fishman

Katie is Senior Marketing Manager at Golden Frog, and works on content, policy and a variety of other marketing activities. Katie is passionate about online privacy and loves to write.

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