Apple responds to China’s claim iPhone is a ‘national security threat’

Apple's rebuttal against claims iPhone is a national security threat

 Apple's Beijing store. Credit: Liam Tung

Apple's Beijing store. Credit: Liam Tung

Apple has issued a cautious rebuttal to claims in a Chinese state media report that the iPhone is a national security threat due to a feature that keeps tabs on frequently visited locations.

In a statement posted to its China website on Saturday, Apple went to lengths to explain to its Chinese customers that the “Frequent Locations” feature in iOS 7 is not a security threat and that, unlike its rivals, Apple “does not depend on collecting large amounts of personal data about our customers”. 

“Apple does not track users’ locations – Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so,” the company said in its English translated statement.

Apple was responding to a CCTV report last Friday that criticised the iPhone being a potential “national security threat” due Frequent Locations collecting data about users' movements. A researcher was quoted as saying that if accessed, the data “could reveal an entire country’s economic situation and even state secrets”.

Given the importance of the Chinese market to Apple, the company chose its words carefully, saying that “we appreciate” the CCTV report.

Frequent Locations, which Apple introduced in iOS 7 to provide services like predictive traffic routing, keeps track of where the device has been as well as how often and when a user visited a place. According to Apple’s support page, data from the feature is “kept solely on your device and won't be sent to Apple without your consent.” Users can opt-in to send Apple data to improve Maps but by default the feature is off.

The security concerns raised in the report are not the first time Apple has been questioned over Frequent Locations. As IDG’s CITE World reported around the time of iOS 7’s launch, because the feature's data is stored on the device it could put enterprise organisations at risk if an attacker gained control of the device.

The other big worry among consumers at the time of its release — shortly after Edward Snowden leaked details of the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program — was that any data sent to Apple’s servers could end up in the hands of the government.

The same fears about US technology and cloud services have been played out through multiple Chinese state media reports over the past few months accusing nearly every major US tech vendor of cooperating with US surveillance efforts.

Apple attempted to address all these issues in the statement, saying that Frequent Locations are only stored on a customer’s iOS device and are not backed up on iTunes or iCloud.

“Apple does not obtain or know a user’s Frequent Locations and this feature can always be turned “Off" via our privacy settings,” it said.

Addressing concerns over malicious attackers gaining access to the device, it also said it encrypts the cache on the device, which can only been seen once the user’s passcode has been entered.

“As we have stated before, Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will. It’s something we feel very strongly about,” it added.

US tech companies are already grappling with the fallout from Snoweden’s leaks in China, with IBM on the receiving end of a recently dropped lawsuit from US investors that attempted to link its falling server sales in China to alleged cooperation with US surveillance efforts. Cisco CEO John Chambers also fears for US tech companies abroad in light of Snowden’s leaks, while Microsoft has seen Windows 8 banned from Chinese government PCs.

‘Greater China’, encompassing China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, is Apple’s third largest market with revenues of $9.2 billion in the second quarter 2014 across the region counting for 20 percent of its global sales. With 13 percent year on year growth for that quarter, it’s also Apple’s second fastest growing region, accelerating at a much faster clip than its two biggest markets, the US and Europe. 

Follow Liam Tung on Twitter 

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

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Tags traffic routingsecurity threatNational Security Agency's PRISMciscoChinaiPhonedata collectionApple dataAppleios 7securityEdward Snowden

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