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Apple Security in China and America: A Double Standard?

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on March 03, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A lot of ink has been devoted these past few weeks over Apple's resistance to the FBI. Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, has repeatedly made his position clear that Apple customers' security is among the company's top concerns.

However, there have been some concerns raised that the company might have been less than staunch in this view in the past when dealing with China. Is this a case of double standards in resisting government demands?

"Security Checks"

In January of 2015, Quartz wrote a piece focusing on rumors that Apple had handed over source code to the Chinese in compliance with their demands. Supposedly, the justification for the demand was Chinese citizens' concerns that Apple was not being used as an arm of the American government to spy on the Chinese populace. The company -- some could say primarily Tim Cook -- acquiesced to Wei Lu's demands and handed over the code. In fact, China has been putting the squeeze on many US tech companies and they've ponied up.

A Market Too Big to Pass Up

Analysts and even Tim Cook himself have declared that the Sinosphere comprising China, Taiwan, and most of Southeast Asia stands to be Apple's biggest market for the foreseeable future. If Apple were to capture that portion of the market, it would have to play by China's rules. Given smart phone competition in the region, it would almost seem as if the decision was already made for Apple. Samsung is, after all, hot on its heels.

Handing China the Keys

In all fairness, Wei Lu, China's "Internet Czar," did not demand that the company create a "backdoor" to accessing a single iPhone.

However, the alternative almost seems just as bad on several fronts. First, even assuming legitimate and good faith impetus for asking for Apple's source code, it would be foolish to assume that the source code was not, in some way, vulnerable to falling into the hands of at least one person within China's borders looking to make profit. China (or persons within) is a well known intellectual property violator and is generally thought to be complicit in such hacking -- or at least willfully blind to it.

China: Well Known for Respecting Privacy

Second, despite China's alleged concern over the privacy of her own citizens, Apple could have very well helped enable the semi-totalitarian state to create the means of spying not only on its own citizens, but on American citizens as well. Imagine an American citizen being detained by the Chinese and holding his iPhone? If Apple does not write the code to disable the iPhone's "erase-after-10" feature," state-sanctioned Chinese hackers will surely find some way.

FBI Director James Comey has taken umbrage to the term "backdoor" in describing what he and his agency would like Apple to do. In his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, he eloquently analogized his request as "asking Apple to remove the snarling guard-dog so we can pick the lock." Hair splitting, sure -- but it's nice to be clear.

The point is this. With Apple's source code, Chinese hackers will find someway to kill that snarling guard-dog. The incentive to do so is just too great. We cannot know just how much unsupervised access Chinese state workers have to the data, but if the past is any indicator, caution is the better part of Sino-American discretion.

Hollow Words?

So, what are we to make of Apple's comments about customer privacy? It is difficult to say. In America, certain procedure insulates individual privacy from the prying eyes of government. But when an American company seeks to capture what is surely the biggest market in human history, it may be the case that the best option is simply to close one's eyes and turn away.

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