Apple makes good with the Chinese government, but a battle over encryption is on the cards

"Arrogant" Apple has apologised in China.

Two stories broke yesterday which say something interesting about Apple's contrasting attitude to working with Governments worldwide. Firstly, the company stands accused of helping the Chinese government censor the works of a dissident author in its App Store. The Financial Times reports:

Hao Peiqiang, the developer of an online bookstore app called “jingdian shucheng”, received a letter from Apple’s “App Review” on Thursday morning telling him his app will be removed because it “includes content that is illegal in China”.

Apple did not specify what content it was referring to, but Mr Hao told the Financial Times he believed the offending content consisted of three books by Wang Lixiong, the Chinese writer whose works are mostly banned in China.

Hao's blogpost shows the letter he received, and it remains possible that there has been a misunderstanding. But given the books themselves are banned in the country, and the app is still available in other stores, it sounds likely that Apple did the bidding of the government.

Compare and contrast that with the news that Apple's iMessage service - which replaces SMS on iPhone-to-iPhone conversations – is causing headaches for the American authorities. CNet's Declan McCullagh and Jennifer Van Grove write:

An internal Drug Enforcement Administration document seen by CNET discusses a February 2013 criminal investigation and warns that because of the use of encryption, "it is impossible to intercept iMessages between two Apple devices" even with a court order approved by a federal judge.

The DEA's "Intelligence Note" says that iMessage came to the attention of the agency's San Jose, Calif., office as agents were drafting a request for a court order to perform real-time electronic surveillance under Title III of the Federal Wiretap Act. They discovered that records of text messages already obtained from Verizon Wireless were incomplete because the target of the investigation used iMessage: "It became apparent that not all text messages were being captured."

From a data security point of view, iMessage isn't even particularly good. The lack of documentation on it means that we largely have to take Apple's word that it's secure, and as cryptographer Matthew Green writes, what little we do know suggests a huge number of moving parts – and so a huge amount which can go wrong.

But the important thing is that authorities used to being able to eavesdrop on phone and text conversations with little more than a radio scanner and some software have suddenly had the rug pulled from under them. Apple itself may still have the capability to read iMessages from the middle, since the encryption doesn't appear to be end-to-end – but getting to your conversations now requires the company to play ball.

It's contrasting stories like these which make it hard to generalise about the effects of technology and the internet on, well, anything. In China, the effects of technological centralisation have make clamping down on banned books, perversely, easier; with the App Store the only game in town for iOS apps, the government only has to send one threatening letter to shut down dissent.

And Apple has been learning the hard way that China isn't like its other markets. Erica Ogg writes at GigaOm:

After a two-week sustained campaign conducted by the country’s government-controlled media outlets against Apple’s repair and warranty service for iPhones that painted the company as “arrogant,” Apple took the very unusual step of having Cook apologize in an open letter to Chinese customers.

But even while the company is struggling to please the Chinese government, in rolling out one of the most widely used encryption programs ever, its actions aren't entirely reinforcing the status quo.

Fundamentally, Apple will follow the money. Sometimes, that's good for privacy, freedom and human rights; and sometimes it's not. But what goes for Apple goes just as much for every other tech company. It's that fact which underpins the fallacy of what author Evgeny Morozov describes as "internet centrism" – the result of reifying the Internet and imbuing it with natural tendencies, as though it wasn't just a collection of individuals and companies each using loosely related technologies to do their own things.

But the increasing use of encryption, one of those technologies in daily life is starting to have effects in the West. For all the over-hyped discussion of the role of social networks in the Arab Spring, that's something which really does have the potential to change things in oppressed nations. If Apple is determined to stick on the good side of the Chinese Government in the long term, a struggle over iMessage might be on the cards.

Customers queue up outside the Apple store in Beijing on the launch of the iPhone 4S. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era