Apple’s Good Intentions on Privacy Stop at China’s Borders

Last October, as Facebook grappled with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a speech in Brussels in which he sought to distance the iPhone maker from its peers. Cook railed against the “data industrial complex,” and chastised companies like Google and Facebook for collecting personal information from users and weaponizing it against them. “This is surveillance,” he said. “This should make us very uncomfortable. It should unsettle us.”

The speech was meant to reaffirm Apple’s position in Silicon Valley as the Patron Saint of Privacy, the company willing to protect user data while others profit from it. In many ways, that reputation is well-earned. After all, Apple refused to help the FBI break into an iPhone that belonged to one of the alleged perpetrators of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. Its devices are among the most secure in the world, and its has aggressively curbed data-tracking in its own apps. But the company’s recent actions in China demonstrate that Apple’s privacy, security, and human rights virtues appear to have a limit. They don’t always extend beyond Beijing’s borders.

Earlier this month, Apple removed—an app that pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong used to track police activity—from its iOS App Store, after an op-ed criticizing the tool was published in People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper. Apple also removed the Quartz news app from its China App Store, after the outlet extensively covered the protest movement in Hong Kong. Around the same time, Apple began hiding the Taiwan flag from users in Hong Kong and Macau; the Chinese Communist Party asserts that Taiwan is formally part of the country under its One-China policy. (The emoji was previously banned only on the mainland.)

Apple says it removed not because of pressure from China, but because it posed a safety risk. “Many concerned customers in Hong Kong have contacted us about this app and we immediately began investigating it,” an Apple spokesperson said in a statement. “The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”

In an internal letter to employees, Tim Cook reiterated that Apple had credible reason to believe was “was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence.” But protest leaders, as well as Charles Mok, Hong Kong’s IT legislator, disputed that the app, which relies on crowdsourced information and doesn’t identify individual police officials, legitimately posed a danger. “I can’t recall an Apple memo or statement that crumbles so quickly under scrutiny,” wrote John Gruber, an influential Apple commentator, referring to Cook’s letter. “For a company that usually measures umpteen times before cutting anything, it’s both sad and startling.”

And last week, Buzzfeed News reported that Apple told some Apple TV+ show developers in 2018 to avoid portraying China in a poor light, as other studios have in the past. “That really says [Chinese] censorship is reaching audiences outside of China,” says Yaqui Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher who studies the country. “Those shows are not just watched by Chinese people. Americans should be worried about this.” Apple declined to comment on Buzzfeed’s reporting.

Taken together, the decisions show Apple’s acute concern about upsetting China’s leaders. “Over the past several years, Apple has made a series of concessions in the realm of free speech and privacy protection,” says Wang. “Every time you concede, it’s a signal to the Chinese government that you are open to more submission.” Last year, to comply with local laws, Apple began storing data and keys to Chinese iCloud accounts in China, making it easier for the government to potentially obtain information on its citizens. And in 2017, Apple removed apps from The New York Times from its Chinese App Store, as well as hundreds of virtual private networks that may have allowed Chinese users to access content blocked by the country’s internet censors. The latter are illegal in the country.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired