Maker Naomi Wu is Silenced by Chinese Authorities (And Why I Blame Elon Musk)

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There’s a really disturbing situation happening in China that I think it’s important everyone know about as soon as possible. The very talented maker Naomi Wu, aka Sexy Cyborg, has revealed that Chinese authorities have paid her a visit and essentially threatened her to stop her from posting on social media. Jackie Singh has the story and some quotes from Wu on her site, which I encourage you to go read in full.

I first talked about Wu back in 2018 when she was fighting with Vice News over their journalists possibly doxxing her. If you don’t feel like pausing this video and going to watch that one first, I’ll sum it up: Vice was doing a profile on Wu and she agreed to participate on the basis that her personal life, such as her relationship status or sexual orientation, not be discussed. The writer, Sarah Emerson, decided to ask those questions anyway, which led to Wu freaking out and publicly revealing a Vice journalist’s home address.

She freaked out because it can be very dangerous to be an outspoken feminist in China, especially if one is, say, bisexual or homosexual, and if, oh I don’t know, one’s partner is a member of an ethnic group that is currently being targeted by the government for human rights abuses that many feel are tantamount to genocide.

In fact, one year after the Vice incident, Wu was taken into custody by police and questioned, and it seems like she had to delete some of her content. She was released, but Singh reports that this latest questioning is her second “strike” – one more could mean a long prison sentence.

Wu suggests that this latest bit of harassment from the cops may be related to her dogged attempts to protect peoples’ privacy and security by exposing flaws in the most popular third party keyboard in China. For years she has called attention to this problem, in which people were using apps like Signal to protect their privacy but typing on a keyboard that could be recording every keystroke and sending it to the developer, Tencent, or to a network eavesdropper. Here’s a thread from her from 2019 in which she details the problem, which also exists in English third party keyboards like Google’s GBoard. She calls out Signal’s ineffective way of dealing with it, and journalists’ incompetence at keeping sources anonymous, which ends up with Chinese authorities “disappearing” them.

Her pleas mostly fell on deaf ears. But this month, researchers at University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published a report confirming the vulnerability, which they passed on to Tencent before publishing. That’s the responsible thing to do, here, because if you publish a headline about a software vulnerability before the developer has a chance to fix it, you’re risking the privacy of, in this case, 450 million people. The researchers say they reported the problem to Tencent on May 31st of this year but got no response. So, they reported it again two weeks later. Two weeks after THAT, they finally got a response: “Thank you for your interest in Tencent security. There is no low or low security risk for this issue. We look forward to your next more exciting report.”

Eighteen hours after that inane reply, someone at Tencent must have realized the world of shit they were in, because they sent a follow-up saying “Sorry, my previous reply was wrong, we are dealing with this vulnerability, please do not make it public, thank you very much for your report.”

Citizen Lab aptly titled their report, “Please do not make it public.”

Five days after Tencent finally took the vulnerability seriously, Naomi Wu was detained by plainclothes authorities who demanded to know why she had been discussing the keyboard and Signal online. She now has to go quiet online or risk imprisonment – on July 7th she Tweeted, 

“Ok for those of you that haven’t figured it out I got my wings clipped and they weren’t gentle about it- so there’s not going to be much posting on social media anymore and only on very specific subjects. I can leave but (her partner) Kaidi can’t so we’re just going to follow the new rules and that’s that.

“Nothing personal if I don’t like and reply like I used to. I’ll be focusing on the store and the occasional video. Thanks for understanding, it was fun while it lasted.”

I find so many aspects of this really distressing. Wu has been such a superstar over the last few years, during which she’s done a fantastic job of teaching people how to use technology to get through this pandemic. She’s called out bad products, like 3D-printed N-95 masks, and she even developed this cool far-UVC light kit for people who want an extra layer of protection against viruses when inside a room with others. She’s also provided what I think is a critical look at what’s happening in China, in terms of the good and the bad. She’s made me reconsider my own cultural lens, and at the same time she’s helped me identify similarities I didn’t know existed between our two cultures. She is a force for good, and her silence makes the world a worse place.

And personally, I’m just really angry at Elon Musk for this. Yeah, Elon Musk. You see, I actually didn’t notice Wu’s final Tweet last month, because Twitter – sorry, Xitter – has become pretty much unusable for me. The replies to every Tweet are dominated by Musk’s fanboys posting braindead nonsense, my notifications are filled with porn bots liking random replies I made to friends, and now he’s saying he’s going to remove the ability to block, which, I mean, if you’ve ever seen screenshots of my replies back in 2012, you’ll know why I just can’t use the service anymore.

And I know, even before Musk took over Twitter, it wasn’t seen as some greater good in the world. But for many people, it WAS. I got a decent size audience there, which led me to be able to raise my audience here on YouTube. That audience and the verified badge meant that, for instance, journalists paid attention when I called out Nick Cohen as a sex pest.

And I suspect Naomi Wu got a similar benefit from Twitter – a big audience to promote her projects. But it was even more critical for her, because that large Western audience protected her. The Chinese authorities are less likely to crack down on someone who will be missed. Who will inspire protests. And friends, when I got to this quote in Singh’s piece I honestly broke inside: “After 8 years of daily tweeting one of the loudest, most candid voices coming out of China has been deplatformed,” Wu said. “- absolutely no one gives a shit. I could be dead in a ditch- but we aren’t actually people, we’re just signs for people like you in the West to wave at each other in their ideological war.”

I broke, guys. Because I feel like I failed her. I stopped paying attention to the platform and everyone on the platform, and I honestly just assumed she did, too. I was just waiting for her to pop up on Blue Sky or wherever so I could go back to hearing from her, there. And because I stopped paying attention, she’s at risk. She’s silenced. She feels abandoned. An authoritarian government thinks they can do what they want to her.

It fucking sucks. She blames the fickle Western mainstream media who didn’t bother to report on her disappearance, and I’m sure she’s right, but I also think there’s some blame to throw at the billionaires who recklessly ruin these platforms that we use to connect to one another. They discontinue products that are insufficiently profitable and kill RSS and the independent websites that rely on it, they “pivot to video” with false metrics and decimate an entire industry, they jack up API rates to kill the 3rd party apps that make the sites usable, and every time we all need to figure out something else, to find our mutuals somewhere else, to reform connections that it took us years to establish. It just sucks.

Anyway, I hope you share Naomi Wu’s story wherever you’re sharing things these days, and I hope mainstream news outlets report on it so Wu knows that she’s not alone.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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