This week’s installment in the popular series “Which U.S. technology will China and/or Russia demonize next?” stars Apple. According to reports in the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has claimed that iPhones are a threat to national security because they track users.
Previous China-themed episodes in this increasingly long-running series have guest-starred IBM (a threat to banks), Microsoft (a threat to national security, economic development and the environment), the U.S. tech industry in general (“pawns of the villain”), and indeed Apple itself, for lousy customer service. Intel and AMD also appeared in a recent Russia-themed episode.
This is, of course, partly a result of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, which showed how the U.S. is spying on both China and Russia. The U.S. also greatly angered China by indicting five People’s Army officials for industrial espionage. However, there’s a clear economic angle too, particularly in the case of China, which has loads of local equipment manufacturers that would benefit from a protectionist boost.
Anyhow, to the meat of the accusation. CCTV and (by likely extension) the Chinese government seem to be bothered by the Frequent Locations function in iOS 7, which learns where users frequently visit in order to provide location-based information. Google does something similar in Android, which is why Google Now knows where you live without you having to explicitly tell it.
Is Frequent Locations creepy? Kind of, but you can turn it off. Can it track lots of people and allow aggregated insight? To an extent — Apple has around 6 percent of the Chinese smartphone market (Google-free Android forks are much bigger) and, given that iPhones are more popular towards the top end of that market, their users are perhaps more likely than not to be of interest.
Can it tell Apple a lot about the user? That’s rather the point. Are iPhones a threat to national security? Probably not more so than anything sending data back to the servers of a U.S. firm. But again, you can turn the feature off.
Still, even though CCTV’s claims may appear somewhat spurious, they could portend more serious official action of some kind. Or perhaps they’re just designed to nudge consumers in other directions. Apple is no doubt paying a lot of attention, as China is a key growth market.