Apple Treads Lightly in Response to China’s iPhone Tracking Accusation

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has responded to a recent report from a government-run media outlet in China that called the iPhone a potential threat to national security. On July 11, China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast a report that criticized the “Frequent Locations” feature available in iOS 7. As noted by Bloomberg, the report cited a Chinese security expert who claimed that the feature could be used by Apple to track users’ movements and possibly reveal state secrets.

However, in a statement published on the company’s China website, Apple denied that it collects personal data on users’ movements. “Apple gives customers control over collection and use of location data on all our devices. Customers have to make the choice to enable Location Services, it is not a default setting,” stated the Cupertino-based company. “Customers may change their mind and opt-out of Location Services for individual apps or services at any time by using simple ‘On/Off’ switches. When a user turns ‘Off’ location data for an app or service, it stops collecting the data.”

While Apple maintains a crowd-sourced database of cell tower and WLAN hotspot locations in order to speed up the process of determining an iPhone’s location, the information that is collected for this service is never personally identifiable. Apple also pointed out that even when the “Frequent Locations” feature is activated; the information that is collected is encrypted and only stored locally on a customer’s iOS device.

Apple and several other U.S. tech companies have increasingly come under fire from China’s media as both the U.S. and China governments’ trade accusations of cyberattacks. Tensions escalated in May, when the U.S. Department of Justice indicted five Chinese military officers for computer hacking. Meanwhile, China has cited information revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that showed that the U.S. hacked Chinese tech company Huawei and has used electronic communications surveillance programs against various Chinese leaders, reports The New York Times.

Apple tacitly acknowledged China’s accusations that the iPhone maker was cooperating with the U.S. government’s surveillance efforts in its recently published statement. “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,” said Apple. “We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will. It’s something we feel very strongly about.”

Finally, Apple was also very careful not to criticize the government-run CCTV’s report, even while it denied the allegations of user tracking. “We appreciate CCTV’s effort to help educate customers on a topic we think is very important,” stated Apple. “We want to make sure all of our customers in China are clear about what we do and we don’t do when it comes to privacy and your personal data.”

The carefully worded statement appeared to be designed to avoid the criticism that Apple was subjected to last year when it failed to adequately address issues raised in a previous CCTV report. Last March, CCTV accused the tech company of giving Chinese consumers subpar post-sales customer service. Apple’s initial response to the report was criticized as “arrogant” by the official Chinese government newspaper, the People’s Daily. Apple CEO Tim Cook later issued an apology and implemented changes to Apple’s warranty policies for the Chinese market. This time, by acknowledging that CCTV is helping to “educate customers,” it appears that Apple is hoping to avoid being characterized as “arrogant.”

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