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An App to Shield Tibetans' Texts From Prying Eyes

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, July 24 2013

Monks protesting with Tibetan flags (image: SFTHQ)

There may finally be a tool Tibetans can more safely use – at less risk of censorship or surveillance – to communicate with each other inside and outside of Tibet. Since YakChat launched in March, the new messenging app has taken Tibetan activists “by storm,” explained Nathan Freitas of the Guardian Project, an organization that creates secure, open-source communications software. Around 5,000 Tibetans have since adopted this app, though most of them are outside of Tibet.

The Tibetan diaspora, a population of roughly 150,000, traditionally has had difficulty connecting with each other whether in Tibet or abroad. Facebook and various aspects of Google are banned in China, so anyone wanting to use them is likely to need a virtual private network. This can sometimes slow down connections to unbearable speeds. Skype had also been a popular tool because it is not monitored, said Freitas, but the mobile application was not as appealing as a hip-and-cool crop of "next generation apps."

Namely, Skype couldn't compete with WeChat.

The Chinese-designed mobile app is hugely popular among Tibetans and Chinese alike. For Tibetans, it offered another plus: a Tibetan keyboard, usually not available on most smartphones apart from the iPhone. WeChat also conveniently fuses several social media tools like the Chinese versions of Twitter, Facebook and Skype. But it soon became clear WeChat was not so much a boon as it was a “curse,” said Freitas, who also advises the group Tibet Action Institute.

A screenshot of the YakChat app (image: Jigmey Nubpa)

The WeChat 'Curse'

After the widespread adoption of WeChat in Tibet, Tibetans began noticing a disturbing correlation between the discussion of politically sensitive information and the seemingly random arrest of monks and activists.

“When there is a crisis, when you’re living under surveillance and oppression, you never know what thing you will do that will be considered out of bounds. Suddenly you’re in a community, and a well-known leader is accused of a crime they did not commit just because they are troublesome,” explained Freitas.

Last October, the Tibet Post reported that a 19-year-old monk was arrested for allegedly discussing political issues on WeChat, although authorities gave no official reason for his arrest. Earlier this year, two Tibetan activists were arrested under charges of “inciting and coercing” eight self-immolations after they distributed images of these acts via WeChat. It was not clear in either case how Chinese authorities obtained these messages. Some sources say it was through the confiscation of cell phones via home raids and others say through the monitoring of conversations through WeChat.

Hu Jia, an activist that was jailed for three years on charges of sedition, told the Guardian that he believes his WeChat voicemails had been tapped.

“I took a chance and assumed WeChat was relatively safe,” he said. “It's a new product and not developed by China Mobile or China Unicom, [two of China's main telecoms companies], which have been monitoring my calls and text messages for over 10 years. But the guobao [security officials] surprised me with their ability to repeat my words or voice messages verbatim, though I'm sure I only sent them to some friends through WeChat.”

That’s the key difference between YakChat and WeChat, explains a Tibetan writer who lives in the U.S. and who asked to be referred to by his pseudonym, Jigmey Nubpa. He previously used WeChat but has been using YakChat for the past year.

“You can basically have a private conversation with whomever you send a message. I feel like I am safe and that I can have a meaningful conversation,” Nubpa explained. He also mentioned that those involved in developing YakChat are hoping to roll out a public awareness campaign in about a month’s time.

The technology for YakChat was developed by Iron Rabbits, a virtual and anonymous hacker collective that develops a number of open source apps and supports Tibetan activism.

Computer security activists are quick to say, of any application that promotes itself as a "secure" alternative for communications, that no software is ever truly 100 percent safe. Given enough time and skill, they might say, it is better to assume a determined attacker will find a way to compromise any system, sooner or later. A pragmatic approach is to consider one's "threat model" — the type of threat one faces — and do as much as possible to reduce the risks from those specific threats. And some security, after all, is better than none.

“YakChat is a very interesting alternative [to WeChat],” explains Freitas. “Tibetans are basically saying we can build our own apps and we can make them safer.”

Another plus is that YakChat is the first app, apart from WeChat, to offer messaging in the Tibetan language.

"It's a huge accomplishment," said Nubpa.

Unlike WeChat, YakChat’s servers are not located in China and also offers added layers of encryption. WeChat on the other hand is operated by Tencent, the company that also developed the microblogging platform, Weibo, which is often censored.

Part of a poem written by a Tibetan poet, entitled, "The WeChat Disease." (image: khabdha.org)

Getting the App Out

While YakChat has shown initial success among the Tibetan diaspora, sneaking the application into Tibet, however, is tricky.

Google Play is blocked in China, which makes downloading Android apps difficult. The iTunes store is also filtered, with a history of banning fairly mild materials, so it may also be a shaky avenue for distributing YakChat. In the past, Tibetans have worked around these obstacles by emailing the apps to each other but in recent months, have experienced malware threats.

Earlier this year, an infected version of Kakao, a Korean chat app that was used by some Tibetan activists as a securer alternative to WeChat, was sent to a prominent Tibetan leader through the compromised email account of an information security expert. Once opened, the virus collected information on the user’s contacts, text messages and geo-location.

The threat is that a compromised version of YakChat can also be created, said Freitas.

“What we tried to do with YakChat, is that you have to verify whether it was actually sent to you from a legitimate source,” he said.

An image of the fake email and infected Kakao messenger app (image: citizenlab.org)

The WeChat Default

Alongside the challenge of physically distributing YakChat is the popularity of WeChat itself. WeChat is also often already built into the mobile phones in China and Tibet. Because of its ubiquity, with nearly 400 million users and 70 million of those outside of China, it is still the most reliable way of getting news when it’s not being filtered, said Freitas.

Many Tibetans also do not know that their WeChat conversations can be monitored, though there is some evidence the message is getting out. Freitas explained that some Tibetan websites within and outside Tibet have posted information about how WeChat is an insecure messenger. But awareness doesn’t end just there.

“The goal is not just to put an app on a website but to figure out how to safely get it out to people in a smart way,” said Freitas. “You can’t just say, look we invented the condom, and STDs are done. You have to educate people on how to use it.” Freitas has worked extensively in Southeast Asia in training people to use technology.

What he has noticed in Southeast Asia is that WeChat can give a false sense of progress or security. As individuals get comfortable with an app like WeChat, people stop connecting on Twitter and Facebook. “If users are only talking to each other on Chinese servers and Internet services, then they are missing out on the rest of the world,” he explained. Freitas also previously noted at a recent Google Ignite Session, it is like having China's censorship regime “exported to the world.”

The hope, explained Freitas, is that YakChat will be widely adopted across Asia as a better alternative to WeChat.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.