Cyberwar Watch

China calls the iPhone and iOS 7 threats to national security

State-run media blasts 'Frequent Location' feature

China's state-run television today told owners of Apple's iPhone that the device is a threat to national security because it tracks their movements.

Reuters reported on the broadcast by CCTV (China Central Television) earlier Friday.

The segment broadcast by CCTV took aim at iOS 7's "Frequent Locations" feature, which records places the user has been and the duration they were there. The functionality is designed to learn important locales to provide preemptive information, such as directions to a frequently-patronized restaurant or the estimated commute time to work.

"Apple's mobile phone positioning can view the user's home address ... and whereabouts," the CCTV report said. "Even if this feature is turned off, the information will still be recorded. From this feature, [someone] can get a cell phone user's occupation, place of work, home address ... and then obtain the overall situation of the user."

According to Reuters' translation, a researcher quoted by CCTV said, "This is extremely sensitive data" that could reveal "even state secrets."

iOS's Frequent Locations, which is part of the operating system's location services framework, is enabled by default, but can be turned off by the user. "This data is kept solely on your device and won't be sent to Apple without your consent," Apple states on its support site.

Government-controlled media in the People's Republic of China (PRC) frequently takes shots at Western technology companies. Apple, for example, has been criticized in the past for its customer support policies: In 2013, CEO Tim Cook issued a rare apology to Chinese customers for its warranty practices. Some analysts believe authorities there want to disparage foreign firms to give home-grown rivals a better chance at grabbing market share.

Last month, CCTV ran broadcasts that took on Microsoft, telling viewers that the Central Government Procurement Center had mandated all "desktops, laptops and tablet PCs purchased by central state organizations must be installed with OS other than Windows 8."

At the same time, other Chinese media outlets, including The People's Daily, the Communist Party's official organ, hammered Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others as pawns of the U.S. government's National Security Agency (NSA). "Foreign technology services providers such as Google and Apple can become cybersecurity threats to Chinese users," the publication said five weeks ago.

The criticisms are often couched as security threats of one sort or another.

Edward Snowden's continuing disclosures about NSA spying and widespread data collection -- what some have dubbed the "Snowden Effect" -- have affected many technology firms' relations with foreign governments, including China, and triggered calls for major NSA policy changes by many of biggest service providers before the surveillance further harms their business.

Apple's stake in China is considerable. In the most recently reported quarter, which ended March 31, Apple said revenue from the Greater China region, which included the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan, accounted for 20% of the California company's total sales. Greater China revenue in the March quarter was up 13% year over year, and up 5% from 2014's first quarter.

Apple is expected to launch one or more iPhone models this fall with screens larger than the current 4-in. displays, in part to boost sales in China and other Asian markets where consumers have flocked to so-called "phablet" smartphones that sport significantly bigger screens and make small-sized tablets superfluous.

CCTV broadcast
China's state-run television on Friday claimed iOS 7's location services was a national security threat. (Image: China Central Television.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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