Apple tells China it doesn't monitor iPhone users' locations

The company responds to a claim by a state-run media outlet that the iPhone's Frequent Locations feature is a threat to the country's national security.

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Apple says the feature is set to Off by default and can easily be toggled on and off by users. Apple; screenshot by CNET

Apple has responded to a state-run Chinese media outlet's claim that the iPhone's Frequent Locations feature is a potential national security threat, saying that data gathered by the feature is stored only on an individual's device and is not scooped up by Apple and that the company has "never worked with any government agency...to create a backdoor" into its products.

The statement follows a national broadcast Friday on China Central Television that said data collected by the Frequent Locations feature could reveal the entire country's economic status and "even state secrets." It's clearly an effort to reassure the government and people of China, a country that Apple CEO Tim Cook has consistently said is his company's second most important market, behind the US.

On its support website, Apple describes the Frequent Locations feature like so: "Your iPhone will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are significant to you. This data is kept solely on your device and won't be sent to Apple without your consent. It will be used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing."

In its statement today, the company stresses that users can switch the feature on and off at will and reiterates that the data is kept on an individual's device and not collected by Apple.

"Our customers want and expect their mobile devices to be able to quickly and reliably determine their current locations for specific activities such as shopping, travel, finding the nearest restaurant or calculating the amount of time it takes them to get to work," the statement says. "We do this at the device level. Apple does not track users' locations -- Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."

And the statement adds later that "Frequent Locations are only stored on a customer's iOS device, they are not backed up on iTunes or iCloud, and are encrypted. Apple does not obtain or know a user's Frequent Locations and this feature can always be turned 'Off' via our privacy settings."

Finally, the statement says "Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will. It's something we feel very strongly about."

Over the last several years, China and the United States have been fighting a not-so-secret cyberwar. Location-aware features have long been a concern for privacy advocates, but China has claimed such features are evidence that American companies are cooperating with the US government programs to monitor China.

It's possible, though not confirmed, that this CCTV report was retaliation for American officials on Thursday saying Chinese hackers broke into US computer networks that house the personal information of federal employees. China often responds to US accusations of cyberspying by taking aim at American tech companies. Apple, Cisco, Google, IBM, and Microsoft are just a few of the tech companies to get caught in the crossfire.

Here's today's statement from Apple in full:


Your Location Privacy

Apple is deeply committed to protecting the privacy of all our customers. Privacy is built into our products and services from the earliest stages of design. We work tirelessly to deliver the most secure hardware and software in the world. Unlike many companies, our business does not depend on collecting large amounts of personal data about our customers. We are strongly committed to giving our customers clear and transparent notice, choice and control over their information, and we believe our products do this in a simple and elegant way.

We appreciate CCTV's effort to help educate customers on a topic we think is very important. We want to make sure all of our customers in China are clear about what we do and we don't do when it comes to privacy and your personal data.

Our customers want and expect their mobile devices to be able to quickly and reliably determine their current locations for specific activities such as shopping, travel, finding the nearest restaurant or calculating the amount of time it takes them to get to work. We do this at the device level. Apple does not track users' locations - Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

Calculating a phone's location using just GPS satellite data can take several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using pre-stored WLAN hotspot and cell tower location data in combination with information about which hotspots and cell towers are currently being received by the iPhone. In order to accomplish this goal, Apple maintains a secure crowd-sourced database containing known locations of cell towers and WLAN hotspots that Apple collects from millions of Apple devices. It's important to point out that during this collection process, an Apple device does not transmit any data that is uniquely associated with the device or the customer.

Apple gives customers control over collection and use of location data on all our devices. Customers have to make the choice to enable Location Services, it is not a default setting. Apple does not allow any app to receive device location information without first receiving the user's explicit consent through a simple pop-up alert. This alert is mandatory and cannot be overridden. Customers may change their mind and opt-out of Location Services for individual apps or services at any time by using simple "On/Off" switches. When a user turns "Off" location data for an app or service, it stops collecting the data. Parents can also use Restrictions to prevent access by their children to Location Services.

When it comes to using iPhone for traffic conditions, iOS can capture Frequent Locations to provide commute information in the Today view of Notification Center and to show you automatic routing for iOS in CarPlay. Frequent Locations are only stored on a customer's iOS device, they are not backed up on iTunes or iCloud, and are encrypted. 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. We encrypt the cache by the user's passcode and it is protected from access by any app. In the interest of even greater transparency for our customers, if a user enters their passcode successfully, they are able to see the data collected on their device. Once the device is locked no one is able to view that information without entering the passcode.

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. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will. It's something we feel very strongly about.

Some features may not be available for all countries or all areas.

 

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