Apple’s commitment to user privacy rings hollow

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Whenever technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon come under fire for the cavalier way in which they deal with their users’ data, one thing is certain: that Apple will make as much marketing hay out of it as possible. Apple followers know by now that the company takes every opportunity to trumpet its unshakeable commitment to user privacy, and makes it clear that because its business model doesn’t rely on advertising, the way its competitors’ models do, it stands apart from them — a lone protector, concerned more about a user’s welfare than the value of their data. A case in point are the new privacy-protection rules the company just rolled out for its iOS platform, which require users to explicitly opt-in to have their data collected or shared by the apps they use.

Apple coverage from technology-centric news outlets often congratulates the company for the purity of its approach, which relies solely on selling you expensive pieces of hardware rather than engaging in targeted advertising. But there are some uncomfortable facts about Apple’s business that critics say raise questions about how deep its alleged commitment to privacy goes, and yet are rarely mentioned.

A recent feature in the New York Times took aim at one rather large blind spot in Apple’s commitment: China. While Apple has made a point of publicizing its fight with law enforcement in the US when the authorities want to get data from one of its phones — as it did in the case of a mass shooting in San Bernardino in 2016 — it doesn’t like to admit that it does the opposite in China. As the Times notes, all of the data on Apple users who live in China is kept on government-owned servers, as required by a Chinese law passed in 2016, and companies beholden to the Chinese government not only control access to the data but also the software keys required to decrypt it.

“Chinese state employees physically manage the computers” where the data is stored,” the Times says, in what amounts to a country-specific version of Apple’s iCloud. “Apple abandoned the encryption technology it used elsewhere after China would not allow it. And the digital keys that unlock information on those computers are stored in the data centers they’re meant to secure.” Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, says that these are just technicalities, but if Chinese government employees control access to the servers, they can probably get a user’s data any time they want to, and Apple can’t do anything about it except pull out of China altogether, which seems unlikely.

Data storage isn’t the only place where Apple has made concessions to the Chinese government in ways that arguably harm its users more than just showing them targeted advertising. The company has also removed apps from its Chinese app store that give users what are called “virtual private networks,” a way of connecting to the internet without giving away a user’s specific location or IP address. Dissidents in China could theoretically use such apps to protect their identities, but Apple won’t let them because the Chinese government wants the freedom to surveill its citizens.

And it’s not just VPN apps. According to the Times story, based on internal Apple documents, interviews with 17 current and former Apple employees, and new filings made in a US court case, the company has removed apps from foreign news outlets and gay dating services, as well as encrypted messaging services, and tools for organizing pro-democracy protests. “Apple has become a cog in the censorship machine that presents a government-controlled version of the internet,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International.

The reason why Apple has chosen to make these concessions to the authoritarian Chinese government is fairly obvious: it generates an estimated $55 billion in revenue from its operations in China, where iPhones are manufactured. But many news outlets seem to be happy to give Apple plenty of space to talk about its alleged commitment to user privacy — and to fawn over its expensive new hardware at invitation-only launch events — without asking the hard questions about its behavior in China.

Here’s more on Apple and China:

Risks: When Apple first announced that it would be storing its user data in China in government-controlled data centers, Amnesty International wrote about what this would mean for users and their privacy. “Companies have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate in the world,” the organization wrote. “Users of their products and services need to be given clear and specific information about risks they might face to their privacy and freedom of expression in China.”

Apple TV: In 2019, BuzzFeed News reported that while some of Apple’s TV shows were being developed before the rollout of its Apple TV+ service, the company told the producers and directors of some of those programs not to portray China in a negative light. Sources told BuzzFeed that these instructions came from Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, and Morgan Wandell, its head of international content development. The directive was seen as part of Apple’s efforts to remain in China’s good graces after a 2016 incident in which Beijing shut down Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies.

Clean: When Tim Cook gave a speech about the company’s commitment to privacy in 2018, he said the stockpiles of data collected by platforms like Facebook “should make us very uncomfortable,” and that Apple treats its users’ data “like the precious cargo that it is.” But Alex Stamos, the former head of platform security for Facebook who now runs the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the company needed to “come clean on how iCloud works in China, and stop setting damaging precedents for how willing American companies will be to service the internal security desires of the Chinese Communist Party.”


Other notable stories:

Faculty at the Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina wrote an open letter to the Board of Trustees about its failure to award tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant for her work on the 1619 Project about slavery’s role in the formation of the United States. Tne board’s refusal was first reported by NC Policy Watch. The journalism school has since offered Hannah-Jones a five-year appointment, which doesn’t require board approval. The faculty letter said the refusal to offer tenure “is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process,” and “violates long-standing norms.”

Two amateur computer coders in China have pleaded guilty to “stirring up trouble and picking quarrels” in a case that highlights Beijing’s growing crackdown on online activity, according to a report from Al Jazeera. Chen Mei, 28, and Cai Wei, 27, created an online archive that stored articles that had been censored from the Chinese internet and an accompanying forum that allowed people to discuss them anonymously. According to Al Jazeera, family and friends believe what got the two men in trouble was archiving articles showing an alternative to China’s official narrative about its coronavirus response just as the country started facing questions over its handling of the initial outbreak.

Subscription-based news site The Information has hired 22 people in the last year, and plans to add more in the future as it tries to build its audience, Digiday reports. Founder and editor Jessica Lessin says her goal is to reach “hundreds of thousands” of subscribers from the “tens of thousands” of subscribers that the company has today (she declined to share specific numbers). Lessin said she expects to hit that goal within the next few years.

Ariana Pekary, CJR’s public editor for CNN, writes about the network’s coverage of the violence between Israel and Palestine, and how it seems to give a lot more time and space to the Israeli government’s position than to that of the Palestinians who are being shelled and fired upon by the Israeli military. “CNN aired a two-hour special on the brewing crisis from 3pm to 5pm Eastern Time without explaining why it was happening. Almost every guest was located in Israel; the network didn’t feature a single person in a Palestinian territory or neighborhood. There were no questions about the recent Palestinian evictions or actions by Israeli police that instigated Hamas retaliation.”

Amazon’s Ring “smart doorbell” is the largest civilian-surveillance network the US has ever seen, writes Lauren Bridges, a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. One out of every 10 US police departments can access videos from millions of home-security cameras without getting a warrant, Bridges says. “In a 2020 letter to management, Max Eliaser, an Amazon software engineer, said Ring is ‘simply not compatible with a free society’ [and] we should take his claim seriously.”

Rumble, a video-sharing platform that has become popular with right-wing commentators, is being funded by a group of conservative venture capitalists including Peter Thiel and JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. The funding is being led by Narya Capital, a Cincinnati-based fund co-founded by Vance, as well as Colt Ventures, the family office of former Trump adviser Darren Blanton.

Erik Wemple, a media columnist for the Washington Post, writes about Sally Buzbee, the newly-appointed executive editor of the New York Times, and her reputation when she was at the Associated Press. “A former colleague of Sally Buzbee recalls the time some big shot at the FBI told the Associated Press that it shouldn’t publish some details in his story. At the time, Buzbee was the wire service’s Washington bureau chief, a post that routinely fields suppressive suggestions from D.C. bureaucrats. ‘She had a polite, corporate way of saying ‘f— you,’ recalls the former colleague.”

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