Apple knew AirDrop users could be identified and tracked as early as 2019. Still not fixed.

a shadowy spy looking at people using airdrop on a subway stationSecurity researchers warned Apple as early as 2019 about vulnerabilities in its AirDrop wireless sharing function that Chinese authorities claim they recently used to track down users of the feature, the researchers told CNN, in a case that experts say has sweeping implications for global privacy.

The Chinese government’s actions targeting a tool that Apple customers around the world use to share photos and documents — and Apple’s apparent inaction to address the flaws — revive longstanding concerns by US lawmakers and privacy advocates about Apple’s relationship with China and about authoritarian regimes’ ability to twist US tech products to their own ends.


A Chinese tech firm, Beijing-based Wangshendongjian Technology, was able to compromise AirDrop to identify users on the Beijing subway accused of sharing “inappropriate information,” judicial authorities in Beijing said this week.


A group of Germany-based researchers at the Technical University of Darmstadt, who first discovered the flaws in 2019, told CNN Thursday they had confirmation Apple received their original report at the time but that the company appears not to have acted on the findings. The same group published a proposed fix for the issue in 2021, but Apple appears not to have implemented it, the researchers said.


Chinese authorities claim they exploited the vulnerabilities by collecting some of the basic identifying information that must be transferred between two Apple devices when they use AirDrop — data including device names, email addresses and phone numbers.

Ordinarily, this information is scrambled for privacy reasons. But, according to a separate 2021 analysis of the Darmstadt research by the UK-based cybersecurity firm Sophos, Apple appeared not to have taken the extra precaution of adding bogus data to the mix to further randomize the results — a process known as “salting.”


One reason Chinese officials may have wanted their exploit known, said Ismail, is that it could scare dissidents away from using AirDrop.

And now that the Beijing authorities have announced it exploited the vulnerability, Apple may face retaliation from Chinese authorities if the tech firm tries to fix the issue, multiple experts said.

China is the largest foreign market for Apple’s products, with sales there representing about a fifth of the company’s total revenue in 2022


Source: Apple knew AirDrop users could be identified and tracked as early as 2019, researchers say | CNN Business

Robin Edgar

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