Apple plays digital privacy hardball with FBI, 'but not China'
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Apple was hailed as a champion of digital privacy this week after refusing to help the FBI hack into an iPhone belonging to a suspect in the San Bernardino shooting. But the firm hasn’t always been so scrupulous about user data, especially in China.
The standoff between the FBI and Apple over the investigation into the San Bernardino shooting, which claimed the lives of 14 people in early December, has divided the United States. While some have argued that the company should, in this particular case, help investigators by bypassing the phone’s security system, others have insisted that doing so will set a dangerous precedent.
The controversy began on Tuesday after a judge ordered Apple to help the FBI “hack” an iPhone linked to the tragic shooting. The next day, the White House gave the investigation its full support, describing it as an “important national priority”.
Despite being a vocal critic of President Barack Obama, presidential candidate Donald Trump agreed with him on the issue, slamming Apple’s refusal to cooperate with law enforcement officials. “I agree 100 percent with the courts… Who do they think they are? No, we have to open it up,” he told Fox News on Thursday.
Chinese ‘security checks’
But others have backed Apple CEO Tim Cook’s refusal to bow to the FBI, including Google boss Sundar Pichai, as well as the heads of WhatsApp (part of Facebook) and Microsoft. Almost overnight, Cook became a bulwark against government efforts to access users’ personal information.
Apple’s new role as a champion of digital privacy must be making the Chinese government smile. According to an article by the US news website Quartz, Cook’s intransigence apparently depends on geography.
Citing reports by Chinese daily Beijing News and the state-run People's Daily, the article claimed that Cook agreed in January 2015 to allow authorities in China to carry out “security checks” on all iPhones sold in the country to make sure the US had not installed any spyware. But, Apple has never confirmed or responded to the allegations.
The article reported that analysts believe Apple likely handed over its operating system source code as part of the agreement. If true, this would mean that the Chinese government knows how Apple’s software works, including its security system. But a source close to the Cupertino-based firm said it would never grant access to source codes, noting that such a move would violate its privacy rules.
User data stored in China
Apple also decided in February 2015 to store local users’ personal data in China. The move was a gesture of good will towards Beijing that other companies like Google, for example, have always rejected for “security reasons”. This is because it is easier for China to request access data stored in places under its jurisdiction, though Apple stresses the information is encrypted.
Apple has never given Beijing the means to hack an iPhone, which is exactly what Cook has accused the United States of seeking in what he described as “an unprecedented step that threatens the security of our customers”.
But Apple’s alleged behaviour in China has demonstrated that the company may be capable of granting a government – even one known for Internet censorship – access to users’ personal information if it’s within the company's best commercial interests.