Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief, has hit out at “fawning” coverage of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s Wednesday broadside against the “data-industrial complex.”
Stamos said that, while he agreed with most of what Cook had to say about Silicon Valley companies over-exploiting people’s data—Cook named no names, but the targets were clearly Google (googl) and Facebook—the media did not take into account Apple’s own privacy failings in China.
Specifically, Stamos took aim at Apple’s appeasement of the Chinese authorities by making it impossible for iPhone users in that country to use secure messaging applications and virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow people to hide their online activities. He also highlighted Apple’s willingness to locate its iCloud data facilities for Chinese users within China.
Is this a case of “whataboutery” from Stamos, who teaches at Stanford these days? There may be an element of Facebook (fb) defense here—although Stamos did say his former employer needs to “collect less data”—but he does have a point about Apple’s seemingly misaligned views on privacy in China and the rest of the world.
Cook said Wednesday that privacy is a fundamental human right that should be protected in every country.
But in China, which has massive state surveillance, Apple (aapl) seems willing to take away people’s ability to use tools that afford them that right.
Cook’s take on the issue last year was that “we follow the law wherever we do business,” and that “participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is [in] the best interest of the folks there.” Which sounds awfully like Apple will help to undermine that “fundamental human right” of privacy in China, if that’s what market access entails.
Regarding Apple’s willingness to use Chinese partners for the storage of Chinese iCloud data—a move that may give Chinese authorities better access to that data—Stamos argued that, “Apple needs to document how they protect data stored by a PRC-owned cloud provider.”
Apple has claimed that it “has strong data privacy and security protections in place and no backdoors will be created into any of our systems.”
Stamos isn’t alone in his concern, particularly regarding Apple squashing pro-privacy apps in China. U.S. lawmakers have accused Apple of “enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet,” and David Kaye—the United Nations’ special rapporteur on free expression—popped into Stamos’s tweet-thread to note that Apple never replied to his letter on the matter.
“I think the tech press can cheer on calls for more privacy regulation in the U.S., but they can also use this moment to advocate for the privacy rights of not just Chinese citizens, but those of countries who are looking to follow the PRC model of control,” Stamos wrote.