Apple Denies iPhones Track Owners' Locations In China

Apple (AAPL) Saturday denied its iPhones are tracking Chinese owners' locations, saying it does not back up location information on iTunes or iCloud, Apple said on its Chinese home page.

"Apple does not obtain or know a user's frequent locations and this feature can always be turned 'off' via our privacy settings," Apple said. "Apple does not have access to frequent locations or the location cache on any user's iPhone at any time."

The issue surfaced Friday when China Central Television (CCTV) criticized the feature, calling the location data extremely sensitive and alleging it could reveal "state secrets," Computerworld reported.

"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," the broadcaster said.

Sales in China account for 16.2 percent of Apple's total revenue and 20.4 percent of sales. The Wall Street Journal reported Apple controls 6 percent of the Chinese smartphone market but sells more than 80 percent of the phones priced at more than $500.

Apple also assured Chinese users it does not pass any information on to government agencies.

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

The Chinese government has claimed the frequent location feature is an example of how U.S. companies are working with Washington to monitor China, CNet reported. CNet speculated the CCTV report was in retaliation for U.S. allegations Chinese military hackers accessed U.S. computer networks housing federal employee information.

The CCTV broadcast also called for stronger data protection laws and warned Apple it would be liable for any data leaks.

Apple's full statement:

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.

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