Apple quickly counters China claim of iPhone spying

Fast response shows how important the market is to the U.S. company

Apple has denied claims by China's state-run television that its iPhones track owners' locations.

The 600-word message was linked from Apple China's home page.

iOS 7's Frequent Locations stores all its data on the customer's iPhone, Apple said Saturday as it responded to spying claims the day before by China's state-run television.

"Frequent Locations are only stored on a customer's iOS device, they are not backed up on iTunes or iCloud, and are encrypted," the English translation of Apple's response stated. "Apple does not obtain or know a user's Frequent Locations and this feature can always be turned 'Off' via our privacy settings. Apple does not have access to Frequent Locations or the location cache on any user's iPhone at any time."

On Friday, CCTV (China Central Television) broadcast a segment that blasted 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.

"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," CCTV said.

A researcher interviewed by CCTV went further, saying, "This is extremely sensitive data" that could reveal "even state secrets."

Apple's quick response to the negative publicity signaled the importance of China to the company's business: Over the last four quarters, "Greater China," the sales region composed of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, accounted for 16.2% of Apple's total revenue. In the latest reported quarter, which ended March 31, Greater China contributed 20.4% of all Apple sales.

Those sales also made the Cupertino, Calif. company choose its words carefully. The message's second paragraph started with, "We appreciate CCTV's effort to help educate customers on a topic we think is very important."

Apple also addressed concerns that the location data collected by iOS 7, the firm's newest mobile operating system, was being passed on to governments. "As we have stated before, Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services," the statement said. "We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will. It's something we feel very strongly about."

Those responses were clearly aimed at dampening any talk that the "Snowden Effect" -- named after former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who has revealed widespread NSA spying and data collection in the U.S. and around the world -- was a problem for Apple's customers.

Apple's quick retort may have been made because of the presumed launch this fall of one or more iPhone models likely boasting larger screens, a feature widely sought by Chinese and other Asian consumers. Many analysts believe that with larger displays -- 4.7-in. or even larger -- Apple will sell an unprecedented number of iPhones in the region.

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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1 Comment

Tony T

1

Can Apple explain why there's some continuous dataflow uploaded and distributed to Ad company to learn customers' hobby? BTW how could someone hacked hunders of IOS7 iphones via frequent location function in Australia if there's no backdoor? Furthermore why the statement Apple gave to South Korean court are different from the current one which previously admitted Apple routinely collect the data from some users all over Korea,

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