Apple was again in the hot seat on Monday when its practice of sending web-browsing data including IP addresses to Chinese internet firm Tencent began to circulate, just as the public backlash for removing a police-monitoring app from its Hong Kong App Store on Wednesday was dying down.

Why it matters: News that Apple has been sending data to Tencent as part of a security feature that warns users about malicious websites have sparked privacy fears. Both companies have a history of conceding to the demands of the Chinese government.

  • After criticism from Chinese state media, Apple last week removed from its App Store an app that helps protesters in Hong Kong track police activities.
  • The app is among hundreds of others that the California-based company removed from its Chinese App Store to comply with Beijing’s internet regulations.
  • Tencent, owner of China’s most popular social networking app, WeChat, reportedly passes user information to the Chinese government to aid in efforts to capture individuals suspected of crimes, silence dissent, and create surveillance cities.

Details: In a new version of Apple’s iOS operating system, the company said that a security feature on iPhones and iPads may also log user IP addresses. This data could be obtained by Tencent, which makes the Safe Browsing System used in China.

  • The feature checks site addresses against an existing list of sites known to be malicious. The list is maintained by Google for users outside of China and by Tencent for those in mainland China.
  • Apple’s partnership with Tencent is under fire by users who fear that their web browsing data might be shared with Tencent and the Chinese government.
  • Apple said in a statement that the company doesn’t send information to Google or Tencent. Instead, it receives a list of problematic sites from both companies and then uses it to protect users from malicious sites.
  • “The actual URL of a website you visit is never shared with a safe browsing provider and the feature can be turned off,” said Apple.

“The more I keep reading about this #Safari and #China issues, the more I start to question @Apple and what else they give China about their users we don’t know yet.”

—Twitter user @Coulton74 on Tuesday

Context: This isn’t the first time Apple has faced criticism for handing data over to Chinese companies.

  • Apple partnered with China’s Guizhou-Cloud Big Data to store iCloud data for users in mainland China starting in 2018, giving Chinese authorities far easier access to text messages, emails, and other data.

Wei Sheng

Writing about semiconductors and telecommunications.

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