Naomi Wu and the Silence That Speaks Volumes

When China’s prodigious tech influencer, Naomi Wu, found herself silenced, it wasn’t just the machinery of a surveillance state at play. Instead, it was a confluence of state repression and the sometimes capricious attention of a Western audience that, as she asserts, often views Chinese activists more as ideological tokens than as genuine human beings.

Scroll down for my interview notes with Naomi Wu.

From the bustling technological hub of Shenzhen, the pseudonymous Naomi Wu, who is also widely known as “Sexy Cyborg”, emerged as a striking embodiment of DIY tech prowess and authenticity. Her presence graced my Twitter feed for many years as an avatar of idealized femininity who proffered creative technical innovations, typically of her own creation, to a delighted Western audience, myself included.

Wu, 29, is unquestionably an expert, despite frequent public suggestions from anonymous cowards suggesting her particular physical form disqualifies her from being one. In fact, I would personally classify her as a modern version of a Renaissance woman given her unconventional style, lack of formal training, unique personality, and unusually wide range of interests and capabilities.

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Curious about Wu’s look? Watch this.

As an example, here she is comprehensively breaking down the capabilities (or lack thereof) of a high-tech filtration mask in a manner which is likely to be beyond your understanding:

Wu’s above video forced the mask’s seller, computer hardware manufacturer Razer, to issue a public response to her findings and to “remove all references” to “N95 Grade Filter” from their marketing material.

…and here is a 2017 video in which she develops a custom hacking drone called “Screaming Fist”:

Though Wu‘s technical acumen has always set her apart, and while yes, she also happens to be a beautiful woman, it was always her audacious authenticity alongside that unconventional cyberpunk aesthetic which garnered immense respect.

Through her creative content and generous engagement with followers across various social media platforms (YouTube: 1.61m subscribers/295m views, Twitter: 248K, Instagram: 175K), she regularly shared glimpses of her life with her dogs and partner, all slipstreamed alongside deeply technical DIY content; her hallmark.

Naomi’s partner, Kaidi, belongs to the Uyghur minority, further heightening the vulnerability of their situation.

Wu has served as a kind of cultural ambassador for individuals like me, offering insights into authentic Chinese perspectives. But it is precisely her open embrace of the world, facilitated by global social media, that appears to have ultimately made Wu more vulnerable to state pressures. The way she managed the balance of championing her personal beliefs while circumventing overt criticism of her home country was nothing short of an art form.

Wu’s role in the hardware hacking scene has been pivotal in challenging stereotypes about who belongs in the tech world. Her presence confidently occupies the space she’s carved out, one where authenticity and expertise are the primary criteria for recognition. However, her relatability might have exposed her to additional risks. Despite the challenges she faces at home, her success as a major tech influencer on the global stage seems to have placed her within her government’s sights.

Despite her primarily Western audience, Wu has consistently encountered unfavorable treatment from Western media, often tinged with misogyny. Notably, a VICE Magazine reporter appeared to consider outing Wu without her consent, potentially jeopardizing her safety by revealing personal information. In a separate troubling incident, the founder of Make Magazine was compelled to issue a public apology after insinuating that Wu wasn’t a “real” human, a baffling assertion considering her substantial and well-documented contributions on YouTube.

Naomi Wu’s devastating July 7th tweet alluded to a pressure that had long been feared by many, yet optimistically hoped she could manage to avoid indefinitely.

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 Kaidi can’t so we’re just going to follow the new rules and…

— Naomi Wu 机械妖姬 (@RealSexyCyborg) July 8, 2023

Source: @RealSexyCyborg/Twitter

“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 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.” –@RealSexyCyborg, July 7, 2023

Although this was not the first instance of Chinese authorities scrutinizing the tech expert (a similar occurrence transpired in 2019), the most disconcerting element of this incident lies in the conspicuous lack of media coverage—a perplexing omission given Wu’s standing as an emblem within the DIY/maker communities and her prior media exposure.

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Conversely, a recent hoax originating from a social media account belonging to child influencer Lil Tay claimed she and her brother had died, and generated a rapid flurry of coverage.

Source: Google News

Could these be geopolitical hesitations standing in the way? Or merely some unfortunate oversight amidst the relentless news churn on the part of those outlets who previously covered her? The tech media’s relative silence in the face of Wu’s abrupt disconnection illuminates a disconcerting landscape of media acquiescence.

The omission of her predicament by the media isn’t just an oversight—it’s a signal suggesting that a significant portion of western media may be increasingly compromised by Beijing’s influence, finding themselves unable to criticize foreign policy, lest they rile the tiger and negatively impact their business. A key reason influencers like Wu are able to gain traction is because of the validation they receive from the public and media alike. Silence in such distressing situations can easily be misinterpreted as indifference. Furthermore, when cultural ambassadors like Wu find themselves precipitously exiled from public life, it sends a cautionary tale to those who might have once been emboldened to share their own stories.

These conditions are exacerbated by an apparent and ever-tightening grip on information from inside China, and amidst these macro concerns lies an added poignant truth about representation and freedom of expression: Naomi Wu is not just a tech virtuoso; she is a living embodiment of resilience for a global LGBTQ community which is navigating increasingly restrictive terrains. Wu’s pullback from the public gaze not only deprives the tech world of an icon, it also robs Wu’s wider community of a valuable symbol of tenacity, hope, and self-love in the face of repressive state control.

The relentless surveillance and censorship tactics utilized by the Chinese Communist Party are not unfamiliar to the global audience. The tragic predicament of the Uyghurs, a cultural and ethnic Chinese minority subjected to what many have called genocide, stands testament to the CCP’s intent to tightly control the cultural viewpoints of its population by any means they consider necessary, even if brutal.

Given these precedents, there is a growing apprehension that Wu’s digital silence signals a new chapter in China’s human rights transgressions–one in which the LGBTQ community potentially emerges as the newest target of state-led oppression, in keeping with global trends.

Ying Xin, Beijing’s LGBT Center’s Executive Director, provided the statistic that only 5% of Chinese people identifying as LGBTIQ are “out” to their families, with an added 0.1% reporting being out in their professional lives as well.

As described by Outright International:

The LGBT community in China has experienced a period of tremendous change. Over the course of the past several decades, LGBT people have gone from being nearly invisible in Chinese society, to forming a vibrant social movement.

Progress has been promising, but remains precarious. Discrimination and state repression are still pervasive, and advocates must navigate treacherous and ever-changing political waters. Strings of news celebrating progress – a court ruling against a clinic offering so-called conversion therapy, a campaign going viral, are punctuated by setbacks — the police detaining activists and shutting down events, censors removing online content, and policymakers snubbing calls for equality.

Developments have been rapid, and full of twists and turns.

In fact, one of the latest turns is the Beijing LGBT Center’s closure by the Chinese government in May of this year. This move came even after the Center took the preemptive step of changing its name to minimize its association with sexual minorities, underscoring the length to which such organizations must go to adapt to an increasingly restrictive environment: total shutdown.

The Beijing LGBT Center announced its closure today. Founded in 2008, the Center was a vibrant community space & a groundbreaking advocacy organization. Their team spearheaded pioneering research, and built networks of LGBTQ-affirming health & business professionals. 1/5 pic.twitter.com/mfZlpLrKSD

— Darius Longarino 龙大瑞 (@DariusLongarino) May 15, 2023

Source: @DariusLongarino/Twitter

Below is a rough translation of the Center’s above statement, originally posted on their WeChat. Note the Center’s use of a term, “不可抗力”, which Google translates to “force majeure”; both an umbrella term and oblique manner with which to refer to a forcible circumstance outside one’s control.

Source: Google Translate

What did the Center mean by “force majeure”?

The reported reality is that nonprofit organizations supporting LGBTQ in China are unable to function without fear, as members often face police interrogations, personal property inspections, and intimidation, even if they leave the country. The government has increasingly accused such groups of collusion with “foreign forces,” emphasizing connections with countries like the U.S. and members of the Five Eyes alliance. As a result, many activists face demands like the prohibition of events, social media account closures, and bans on regular social and dating activities.

The public space for the LGBTQ community in China has been steadily shrinking.

As noted by the Associated Press:

Police pressure on rights groups increased in the past few years, the activist said. Police often invited LGBTQ+ groups to “drink tea” — a euphemism for unofficial meetings that police use to keep track of certain targets. That used to happen in public spaces, but started taking place in private spaces, such as directly in front of activists’ homes. Police also started taking activists to the police station for these “teas,” the activist said.

When I was able to speak to Ms. Wu about the “tea drinking” session (euphemism for police harassment), she sharply conveyed her sense of vulnerability due to the lack of interest in her stepping away from her popular Twitter account, stating,

Literally the only thing that was keeping me online for the past few years was they were worried it would make China look bad if they cracked down on me. Now that they know that I could be dead in a ditch tomorrow and no one would give a shit or say a word I’m 1000x less safe here.

Further emphasizing the complexities of her identity and the West’s interpretation of it, she said,

Having a real-life Chinese person posting here who does not 100% endorse every part of their China good/bad narrative makes it harder for them [the media].

Through Wu’s lens, the nuances of her experiences become inconvenient wrinkles in a narrative Western media wishes to smooth out, one in which we prefer our subjects to be neatly framed, silent victims whose stories can be manipulated without pushback.

Wu added,

After years of doing this without anyone saying anything, on June 30th, out of the blue, they send plainclothes thugs to my house. Surprise! They were real cops.

This event on June 30th was timed closely with events associated with a cybersecurity vulnerability report delivered to Tencent by researchers based at The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. This recent reporting, authored by Jeffrey Knockel, Zoë Reichert, and Mona Wang, addressed a serious, encryption-related vulnerability in Tencent’s popular Sogou keyboard software, affecting 455m monthly users.

data leakage from keyboard apps sounds like something @RealSexyCyborg was trying to raise awareness of for some years, especially as it relates to their usage alongside secure messaging apps

— nobody (@imaguid) August 9, 2023

Source: @imaguid/Twitter

While Citizen Lab’s report was published on August 9th, the vulnerability itself was initially reported back on May 31st per the disclosure timeline. A presumed lack of response led the researchers to attempt another disclosure method. A month later, on June 25th, Tencent dismissed the report as a “low security risk” and mocked it as not “exciting”.

Source: “Please do not make it public” Vulnerabilities in Sogou Keyboard encryption expose keypresses to network eavesdropping/Citizen Lab

According to Citizen Lab’s report, Tencent changed their mind less than a day later and nicely asked the researchers not to make their report public:

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.

The researchers replied:

Thank you for the update. We will publicly disclose the vulnerability after July 31, 2023.

As we can see, the vendor finally sat up and took official notice of this severe, privacy-affecting software bug on June 25th–only five days before Wu, who has previously tweeted about a vulnerability affecting the same Sogou software, was paid a visit by Chinese authorities.

Wu explicitly drew this connection in my discussion with her:

Five days after Tencent (Shenzhen) admits to the IME vulnerability, the Chinese person (in Shenzhen) who originally publicized it suddenly gets dragged in by the cops and forced offline.

NONE of them could read English to see my account does not even make China look bad, it was all Baidu fucking translate and demands why I was talking about Signal and the keyboard

Her account concluded with an unsettling revelation about the risk she would face if she were to continue tweeting: having already received two “strikes” from the authorities, a third could mean a years-long prison sentence.

I had to sign and fingerprint a “confession”.

So, how could a security vulnerability in a Chinese mobile software play a part in Wu’s recent warning from Chinese police?

Wu herself had previously sent various public tweets obliquely warning about similar, privacy harming issues associated with the Sogou software in 2019, citing a 2015 report describing similar vulnerabilities. A particular concern she shared was that users of Sogou may decide to install Signal App to communicate, believing the app’s safety profile to be broadly appropriate for many people. However, the eavesdropping and network fingerprinting risks associated with the use of a third party keyboard such as Sogou take precedence over Signal’s security profile.

This means Signal App cannot stop an input method such as Sogou from recording keystrokes and sending them back to its developer, as explicitly warned by Citizen Lab.

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China’s National Security Law, established in 2020, empowers the government to access surveillance data from Chinese tech companies without the need for a judicial process. This grants authorities the ability to obtain private information whenever deemed necessary.

It is possible that Wu’s tweets about the issues in the Sogou software of which she was aware may have caught the attention of Chinese authorities who were searching for related information on Western networks.

Wu’s theory that her tweets about these vulnerabilities could have led to her temporary detention and coercion now seems entirely plausible.

After 8 years of daily tweeting one of the loudest, most candid voices coming out of China has been deplatformed- 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.   –Naomi Wu

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