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5 April 2013updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

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

"Arrogant" Apple has apologised in China.

By Alex Hern

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:

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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.

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