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Apple's Taiwanese flag ban leads to iPhone crashes

11 July 2018

As the chief research officer at cyber-security company Digita Security, Wardle published details of his bug discovery in a personal blog post.

The bug is specific enough to make anyone suspicious.

Anyone with that language setting wouldn't see the emoji but would instead see a square with a cross through it.

Having just released iOS 11.4.1 to the masses, Apple's focus was very much focused on squashing bugs rather than rolling out new features.

The iPhone's notorious closed nature made analyzing the bug challenging. It helped to isolating the memory locations that stored a dereferenced null pointer and a faulty instruction that caused it. Wardle also relied on the iPhone's restore image to pull some of the code libraries.

Texts that used the emoji would display a box with a cross over it - a case of missing emoji. Apple had configured iOS to flag messages, both types and received, that included the Taiwan flag emoji.

The intended behavior of this code is not to crash your phone, obviously.

After two+ years of being unable to type "Taiwan" or being remotely DOS'd anytime her phone received an Taiwanese flag emoji, the fix (kudos to my friend Josh S. for the idea!), was simply to toggle the region from USA to China, then back to US. He had no trouble reproducing the remotely triggerable bug, which crashed any iOS application that processed remote messages, including iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. While Apple hasn't commented on the case, this isn't the first time it has caved to China's requests.

The filter, apparently, was to block the flag and name of Taiwan from users in the heavily-censored mainland China. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, leading to a great deal of tension that extends even to emoji.

Wardle notes that Apple probably created code in iOS to remove Taiwan's flag emoji at the behest of the Chinese government, and that code is the cause of the suspicious crashes. These restrictions drove Google to end its Chinese business operations a decade ago.

Apple's Taiwanese flag ban leads to iPhone crashes