Global Tech

Apple’s New Security Concessions to Beijing

The Apple store in Beijing (image via Shutterstock)

The Apple store in Beijing (image via Shutterstock)

Apple is deepening its uneasy embrace of Beijing security officials, with word that it has agreed to allow security audits for products that it sells in China. This latest development comes less than a year after Apple took the unusual step of moving some of the user information it collects to China-based servers, which was also aimed at placating security-conscious regulators in Beijing.

Apple’s increasingly close cooperation with Beijing contrasts sharply with Google, whose popular Internet products and services are increasingly being locked out of China as it refuses to play by Beijing’s rules. Other global tech giants are also having to deal with the delicate situation, each taking a slightly different approach to try to protect user privacy while complying with Beijing’s insistence that they make their information available to security-conscious government regulators.

As a relatively neutral observer, I can sympathize with both the Apples and Googles of the world. Companies like Apple have decided that China is simply too large for them to ignore, and thus are taking steps to address Beijing’s security concerns as a condition for access to the huge market. Microsoft has also taken a similar tack, and Facebook is showing it will also be willing to play by such rules with its recent repeated lobbying for a chance to set up a China-based service.

Google has taken a more defiant stance by refusing to compromise user privacy and free speech, with the result that a growing number of its products and services are now blocked in China. The company shuttered its China-based search website in 2010 over a dispute with Beijing on self censorship. Last year many of its global sites and even its Gmail email service also became increasingly difficult to access for users in China.

Apple isn’t being nearly so defiant, and the latest headlines say it has agreed to the audits of its products by the State Internet Information Office. The reports say Apple agreed to the audits when CEO Tim Cook met with State Internet Information Office official Lu Wei during a December trip to the U.S. I previously wrote about Lu’s trip after photos appeared on an official Chinese government website showing him visiting the offices of Facebook, Apple, and also Amazon.

Lu reportedly told Cook that China needs to be sure that Apple’s popular iPhones, iPads, and other products protect user privacy and also don’t compromise national security. Unlike other PC and cellphone makers that simply sell their devices to consumers, Apple actively keeps records of its product users and some of their usage habits and other related information on remote computers.

This latest move looks like an extension of another one last summer, which saw Apple agree to host some of the data from its China-based users on servers based inside the country. That move also looked aimed at calming national security worries from Beijing, since storing such information on China-based computers would make it more accessible to investigators conducting security-related probes.

In an interesting twist to the story, this latest report comes from a state-owned newspaper in Beijing, making it a sort of semi-official disclosure of China’s approach to the matter. That would follow the government’s own announcement of Lu Wei’s December trip, and perhaps shows that Beijing wants to be more open about steps it’s taking to address national security threats like terrorism. That kind of more open attitude could help both domestic and foreign companies to better navigate China’s tricky cyber realm, though it won’t be of much help to defiant companies like Google that are more intent on protecting free speech and user privacy.

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