When the history books are written, "cybersecurity" will go down as one of the key buzzwords for Sino-US relations in 2014, following a nonstop war of accusations between Beijing and Washington. In the latest twist to this story, leading broadcaster CCTV is warning Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) fans to beware of security risks posed by data tracking functions on their iPhones. The implication seems to be that Apple is working closely with government spies in Washington to secretly collect data on the whereabouts of iPhone users throughout China. It's not really clear why anyone would want such information, but that doesn't seem to be important to CCTV.
Of course I'm being just slightly facetious with some of those last thoughts, mostly to show how absurd the bickering between Washington and Beijing has become on the cybersecurity issue. The people at CCTV seem to think that just because all of China's telcos and many of its smartphone makers are state-owned and thus have strong government connections, that the same must be true of the west.
I shouldn't completely dismiss such a connection, since we saw in the early days of the Edward Snowden scandal how Washington cybersecurity officials regularly ordered some of the top US tech companies to hand over data. But that said, there hasn't been any indication in this latest case that Washington has made such requests of Apple, even though it theoretically could at any time.
Before we go any further, let's look more closely at the actual CCTV report, which said the iPhone's built-in tracking function that helps users to find their location could also be used by third parties to locate users at any time. (English article) The report added such tracking could lead to the exposing of state secrets, the vague term used by Beijing that can mean anything from truly sensitive information to far more mundane things like industry data that are widely available to the public.
Apple replied to the claims by saying it had never "worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services." It added that users can turn off the locator function, and that location data isn't available to third parties and is only stored on the phone and not anywhere else.
Some observers might note that Apple didn't deny that it had the ability to track users' locations, and I suspect that anyone with enough sophistication could probably hack into an individual iPhone to find that person's whereabouts. Perhaps this story does draw some attention to the growing sophistication of technology to track every move a person makes.
But there are already so many such ways to track people and monitor what they're doing that this latest revelation about Apple and iPhones seems like just another piece in a much larger picture. I don't know enough about the technology to comment definitively, but I suspect that any smartphone with location tracking technology could be used in a similar way, and mobile carriers and operators of apps like Tencent's (OTCPK:TCEHY) WeChat can also probably easily locate any individual user at any time.
Rather than raising any true new security concerns, this report looks more like another Chinese media attempt to undermine Apple, and more broadly to discredit western technology. Washington is playing a similar game by leveling numerous accusations at Beijing and Chinese tech firms, though western media are taking a more balanced approach on the issue. At the end of the day, this kind of report does reflect the new reality that privacy is easily compromised in the Internet era. But the debate in the Chinese media is hardly an objective one, and instead is filled with distracting and unhelpful political overtones.
Bottom line: CCTV's latest attack against Apple may have some grounds in reality, but is politically motivated and designed to undermine the company and western technology in general.