Apple responds to Chinese media backlash over iPhone location tracking

Tim Cook in the crowd at a recent event with China Mobile.

Tim Cook in the crowd at a recent event with China Mobile, the largest carrier on earth.

After the Chinese media called iOS’s ability to track an iPhone’s location a “national security concern,” Apple has responded with a lengthy statement detailing its commitment to customer privacy.

Yesterday China’s state-run CCTV ran a segment heavily criticizing the “Frequent Locations” feature in iOS 7 that records where the device has been in detail on a map. The implications of the report were that Apple was sharing the data with other companies and governments.

Today Apple responded to the allegations by saying that it is “deeply committed to protecting the privacy of all our customers” and that it has never created a backdoor for any government agency.

Apple’s statement has been posted on its Chinese website, as first noted by The Wall Street Journal. Part of the statement notes that, “Unlike many companies, our business does not depend on collecting large amounts of personal data about our customers.” That’s a clear jab at competitors like Google and Facebook. The Chinese media has already accused most Silicon Valley companies of conspiring with the NSA to collect private data on Chinese citizens.

China is a huge market for Apple that is growing rapidly, so Apple carefully dodges throwing blame on CCTV by saying, “We appreciate CCTV’s effort to help educate customers on a topic we think is very important. 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.”

This isn’t the first time CCTV has attacked Apple. Last year a big campaign criticized Apple’s “arrogance” towards the Chinese market with its different policies on product warranties. Tim Cook had to issue a public apology to dispel the smear campaign.

You can read the full statement from Apple below. Much of the information has already been shared in the company’s privacy reports.

Apple is deeply committed to protecting the privacy of all our customers. Privacy is built into our products and services from the earliest stages of design. We work tirelessly to deliver the most secure hardware and software in the world. Unlike many companies, our business does not depend on collecting large amounts of personal data about our customers. We are strongly committed to giving our customers clear and transparent notice, choice and control over their information, and we believe our products do this in a simple and elegant way.

We appreciate CCTV’s effort to help educate customers on a topic we think is very important. 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.

Our customers want and expect their mobile devices to be able to quickly and reliably determine their current locations for specific activities such as shopping, travel, finding the nearest restaurant or calculating the amount of time it takes them to get to work. We do this at the device level. Apple does not track users’ locations – Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using pre-stored WLAN hotspot and cell tower location data in combination with information about which hotspots and cell towers are currently being received by the iPhone. In order to accomplish this goal, Apple maintains a secure crowd-sourced database containing known locations of cell towers and WLAN hotspots that Apple collects from millions of Apple devices. It’s important to point out that during this collection process, an Apple device does not transmit any data that is uniquely associated with the device or the customer.

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. Apple does not allow any app to receive device location information without first receiving the user’s explicit consent through a simple pop-up alert. This alert is mandatory and cannot be overridden. 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. Parents can also use Restrictions to prevent access by their children to Location Services.

When it comes to using iPhone for traffic conditions, iOS can capture Frequent Locations to provide commute information in the Today view of Notification Center and to show you automatic routing for iOS in CarPlay. Frequent Locations are only stored on a customer’s iOS device, they are not backed up on iTunes or iCloud, and are encrypted. Apple does not obtain or know a user’s Frequent Locations and this feature can always be turned “Off” via our privacy settings.

Apple does not have access to Frequent Locations or the location cache on any user’s iPhone at any time. We encrypt the cache by the user’s passcode and it is protected from access by any app. In the interest of even greater transparency for our customers, if a user enters their passcode successfully, they are able to see the data collected on their device. Once the device is locked no one is able to view that information without entering the passcode.

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.

  • http://www.designstrategies.com Len Williams

    The point needs to be taken that despite Apple’s best attempts at protecting users’ information and privacy, I believe it’s well within the capability of the NSA’s current technology to break into any phone on the planet, even those manufactured for the Chinese government by Chinese government-approved manufacturers. I suggest that anyone interested in how invasive government spying can be, to watch the Will Smith/Gene Hackman movie “Enemy of the State”. It might be Hollywood, but I believe that the technology shown in the film is currently feasible today, and is not science fiction. Lest you believe that the United States is the only country capable of this, I’d bet my boots that all of the major developed countries also have this capability in their various national security agencies, including Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Canada, Australia, China, Japan, etc. There simply is no real privacy these days, so keep your nose clean. Computers, cell phones and tablets have allowed security agencies into our homes, offices and pockets.

  • AAPL_@_$101_Is_A_Done_Deal_:)

    How come CCTV doesn’t have any complaints about Android smartphones? Don’t Android smartphones have anything like Location Tracking? There’s far more Android smartphones in China than iPhones and Android smartphones are totally open so nobody has any control over what they’re running. Agencies really get a kick out of accusing Apple of wrongdoings.

    • Tallest Skil

      Because Google knows who to pay off and how much.

      • imajoebob

        Because Google sold out to the Chinese government a couple years ago.

  • Kr00

    And Huawei don’t do this with their products? Give me a break. It’s a Chinese government run company that has used its products to send user information home, for god knows what reason. Remember, China kills those in their own country who don’t agree with them. This is more about control of a popular product and money than anything.

    • imajoebob

      But since the PRC (and/or People’s Army) own Huawei, they get access to all the data. Apple obviously isn’t giving it up, which just pisses off the Generals.

  • aardman

    Once in a while the big ugly hair hand of state capitalism comes out of the pocket it normally hides in and gives everyone a slap across the face just because it can.

  • imajoebob

    I think this is proof that Apple IS committed to customer privacy. The only thing the PRC can’t like about this is that they can’t get access to the data. This is reminiscent of the PRC’s going after Google when they wouldn’t rat out the IPs of dissidents. First the government tried to convince people that Google was collecting and selling their data; then they threatened to block Google in the country. Finally, when all else failed, they attacked Google’s servers (both public and private) until Google relented and scores of people now rot in Chinese slave labour camps.

    Let’s see how long it takes for China to start talking about prohibiting Apple from including the technology in Chinese phones. And then how long until we see another news story about “mysterious” attacks on US corporation servers.

About the author

Alex HeathAlex Heath is a staff writer at Cult of Mac and co-host of the CultCast. He has been quoted by the likes of the BBC, KRON 4 News, and books like "ICONIC: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation." If you want to pitch a story, share a tip, or just get in touch, additional contact information is available on his personal site. Twitter always works too.

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