Electronics have long been recognized as a weak link when it comes to secure conversation. From bugs hidden in lampshades to phone taps to keystroke tracking software, electronics provide the easy path to monitoring and censoring communications. In no area is that so apparent, perhaps, as in text messaging, as some users around the globe are discovering the hard way.
Text messaging and the first level of censorship begins at the phone. While it’s certainly possible to enter any word using the alphabetic method in which a=2, b=2-2, c=2-2-2, d=3 and so on, it isn’t very convenient. This has led manufacturers to develop alternate systems like T9, which make it easier to enter common words. T9 works by using algorithms to determine what word a user is trying to enter. Punching 2-2-8 might default to "cat" for example, since that’s a common word which uses the letters associated with those numbers. It might also give you "bat" however, which is another logical guess based on the letters available through those keystrokes. Usually, a provision is made for selecting words other than the algorithm’s first guess.
Where things start to get hairy is when a user enters something like 3-8-2-5, which can spell either "dual" or a somewhat naughty word which you won’t find in your family newspaper. (Raise your hand if you aren’t looking at a phone right now. I thought so.) In that case, the manufacturer could design the phone to provide the second word as an alternate, or more likely, avoid it altogether. In a nation like the US, avoiding a word which some might find objectionable is a business decision that probably prevents some complaint letters. In other countries, it could be a government mandate, and the banned word might not be 3-8-2-5, but something like "liberty" or "Taiwan."
At first, that sounds inconvenient, yet relatively benign. After all, a user could still switch to alphabetic entry and write anything they want, right? Perhaps, but the second level of control involves monitoring and censoring the messages of users, as the Chinese government has been doing since the SARS outbreak of 2004. At that time, word about the SARS epidemic spread like wildfire despite very little coverage by the government-controlled press. Since realizing the informative power of mobile phones, Chinese authorities have monitored and filtered text messages as a matter of course.
The problem doesn’t begin or end with China. Security agencies in countries as diverse as Iran and Germany have been spotted responding to text messages regarding political leaders or outlawed ideologies. Much of this communication scanning is done with the compliance of the mobile phone providers, which simply consider it the price of doing business in various countries. We’ve seen this before, as in the case of Google and other portals filtering search results to suit local authorities.
The good news is that censoring communication continues to remain something of an arms race. While aficionados of such evil words as "Taiwan" or 3-8-2-5 might sometimes find themselves under scrutiny by the Powers That Be, there’s nothing to stop them from switching to slang which means the same thing. Taiwan might be referred to as "the neighbors," for instance, while 3-8-2-5 could be "frak."