Taiwanese Flag Emoji Is Crashing iPhones In China

While all iPhones of a series are created equally, not all of them work equally. The apps that are downloaded to them, the functions they primarily carry out, and how they are cared for from a technical standpoint, all make a difference. Now it has been uncovered that at least in one case, location matters a lot. Not just in regards to signal strength, but the ability to crash an iPhone on-demand if it has a specific location setting. If that sounds odd and scary, it is both, but more amazingly it’s verified as true.

Patrick Wardle, the founder of Digita Security and a former NSA staffer, is probably one of the best known hackers of Apple technology in the world. He has built an excellent career around his ability to do pretty much anything he wants to with an Apple product. If anyone had seen it all when it comes to iPhone bugs and glitches, this is the guy. However when he was at the RSA security conference in San Francisco, a Taiwanese friend in attendance claimed that the Chinese government was hacking her iPhone. Wardle was skeptical, but decided to take a look as a friend, and what he found was shocking.

His friend’s claims were correct in that whenever the emoji for the Taiwanese flag was sent to her iPhone, whatever app it was received through immediately crashed. Wardle told Wired that it wasn’t a one time deal, it was every single time. Up for the challenge, and being the right man for the job, Wardle decided to figure out what was happening.

“I could send her a message and this emoji of death would crash her phone. Basically, Apple added some code to iOS with the goal that phones in China wouldn’t display a Taiwanese flag, and there was a bug in that code.”

What Wardle found is that the Chinese government wasn’t really hacking her iPhone, or anyone’s for that matter, but they did have something to do with it. Dating back to sometime in early 2017, the iOS was updated to include a bit of code that censors the Taiwanese flag in it, by request of the Chinese government, as China doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and claims it as their own.

This can be tested by anyone with an iPhone outside of China that hasn’t downloaded the patch. Change the location setting to China, and then have someone text the phone the Taiwanese flag emoji and the iPhone will crash. Be warned, however, that in some cases the phone will recognize the emoji as invalid input which causes the phone to crash, not just the receiving app. Wardle didn’t have all the details worked out when he talked to Extreme Tech, but he believed something in the code regarding the interaction between the location and language settings is what is to blame.

Wardle did inform Apple of the issue, and while they released a patch and issued release notes stating “a denial-of-service issue was addressed in improved memory handling,” the censorship of the Taiwanese flag remains in place. It is not known if the patch was rolled out to iPhones within locations in China, according to Extreme Tech. Wardle summed up his feeling on the issue with Wired, stating the bug never should have existed.

“If Apple had never tried to appease the Chinese government, the bug would never have been introduced in the first place. They say ‘We’re not going to spy on our users.’ But if China asks, they’ll build censorship into their devices and not really talk about it. Hypocrisy is the term I would use.”

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