Stephen Delahunty looks at how the tech giant is facilitating the Communist country’s crackdown on free speech and pro-democracy movements.
In 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a speech in which he railed against the “data industrial complex” and chastised companies such as Google and Facebook for weaponising user data. “This is surveillance,” he said. “This should make us very uncomfortable. It should unsettle us”.
The tech boss however seems completely at ease with forgoing those virtues, as the company’s recent actions in China demonstrate. Apple’s care for privacy, security and human rights appears to have a limit.
Apple’s business relies on China. Its iPhones and other products are largely manufactured and assembled there, it is considered a key growth market and its stock reached an all-time high earlier this month, with Chinese Government data showing a spike in iPhone sales.
Last quarter, the company reported $9 billion worth of revenue in China. Assuming Apple pulls in around $10 billion for the current quarter, that would amount to around $43 billion of revenue from China for the 2019 financial year.
China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan together constitute Apple’s second-largest market after the US. While Cook was having breakfast with President Donald Trump at Davos this week, pro-democracy protestors continue to clash with police. The demonstrations that have plagued Hong Kong for months have found Apple caught between its stated values and lucrative business interests.
Last week, the US company published its latest biannual transparency report detailing government and private party requests for the period 1 January to 30 June 2019. Beijing has made more than 15,000 data user requests and asked for 196 apps to be removed from the App store. Apple complied with 194 of the demands on the basis of “alleged/suspected violations of local law”. In addition, the company accepted 94 takedown requests for “platform policy violations” from Chinese authorities which claims that “the vast majority relate to illegal gambling”.
In October 2019, Apple removed HKmap.live from its App store, which was being used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to track police activity.
Andy Li, a rights activist in Hong Kong, said: “We’re experiencing human rights violations in both the digital and physical space. It’s notable that China is asking the company to take down apps that aid pro-democracy movements. China subsumes human rights freedoms to economic development. When you look at Chinese development projects around the world, they go ahead on the condition that those countries turn a blind eye to what’s happening in China.”
Apple maintains that it removed HK.map.live not because of pressure from China, but because it posed a safety risk.
In Tibet, China’s system of control has seen many arrested and accused of “crimes” such as flying the Tibetan flag, showing support for the Dalai Lama, speaking in support of their culture and language, or contacting the outside world via social media.
After the passing of the new Cyber Security laws in 2018, Apple announced that it was moving its icloud data centre for Chinese users into a new local data centre in China in partnership with the state-owned company Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD).
Lobsang Gyatso, the digital security programme director at the Tibet Action Institute, said: “If you understand and agree, Apple and GCBD have the right to access your data stored on its servers. We found around 29 Tibetan Apps which are blocked on the Chinese App Store and, when we contacted a developer, he had no idea this was happening. This lack of transparency and how Apple uses local laws as an excuse is a worrisome trend for me.”
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Karen Reilly, a community director at GreatFire.org – an organisation that monitors internet censorship in China – explained to Byline Times why Applecensorship.com was created.
“It compares the availability of apps by country,” she said. “This information was not readily available before. This censorship continues, even when someone leaves China. App store censorship is particularly troubling because it expands the reach of censors past the Great Firewall.”
Last August, iPhone vulnerabilities were revealed that compromised a person’s phone if they visited certain websites and it was reported that the exploits had been used to target China’s minority Uyghur population – more than a million of whom have been thrown into camps in the western Xinjiang province.
When Apple finally released a statement addressing the vulnerabilities, it acknowledged that Uyghur Muslims had been their intended target.
Byline Times reported last May how IBM has helped design China’s surveillance regime through the use of smart cities, which has essentially automated racism.
Zumretay Arkin, a Uyghur Human Rights Advocate from the World Uyghur Congress, said: “In East Turkistan, the Chinese Government has established a tight network of police checkpoints and CCTV cameras, including ‘three-dimensional portrait and integrated data doors’, which scan the faces of individuals and read information from their electronic devices. Since 2018, Mainland Chinese provinces and regions have been investing in facial recognition systems for public surveillance which are claimed to be able to identify ‘Uyghur attributes’.”
In addition, Apple’s ‘Safe Browsing’ feature is a Safari web browser tool that warns people when they may be visiting malicious sites. In China, it relies on a database compiled by Tencent, a Chinese internet company with ties to the Government.
Apple has argued that its presence in China “helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information”.
However, Sondhya Gupta, a campaigner with corporate watchdog SumOfUs, said that Apple has twisted itself into a knot of hypocrisy.
“Corporations and governments alike have long argued that it’s by trading with repressive regimes we can challenge them on human rights and improve the lives of people living under their rule,” she said. “But it’s clear that this is far from reality. The Chinese Government seems to have been emboldened, not chastened, by Apple’s willingness to do business with it.”