Apple has a new privacy feature, but not for its customers in China, nor for customers on a list of usual-suspect dictatorships that tend to tag along with China. The new privacy feature masks a customer’s unique IP address from advertisers, internet service providers, governments, and other third parties with which the customer interacts. Thus third parties can’t discover the customer’s identity or location, and Apple will not know which websites its customers are visiting. That means the privacy of Apple customers improves.
But there’s a catch. U.S. law enforcement will find it more difficult to find terrorists and spies in the United States, and the Chinese police will continue to easily track and catch China’s human rights activists. Thus Beijing increases its power relative to the power of governments in democracies. Thank you, Apple.
The company is laughing all the way to the bank. It garnered $21 billion in revenues from China in 2020, up 57 percent from the year prior. Apple claims to support 2 million jobs in the United States, but it only directly employs 80,000. Compare that to 4.8 million jobs it supports in China. All those jobs and sales in China produce taxes that support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is committing genocide against its own population, and building missiles aimed at U.S. cities.
So, Apple is no saint. Its new privacy feature is no exception. Apple could have helped U.S. law enforcement catch terrorists and spies by quietly keeping track on its own of customer web browsing, without giving advertisers the data they need for targeted ads. But no. Apple is purposefully making it impossible for itself to help U.S. law enforcement.
Apple customers want total privacy, which is understandable, and Apple gives their customers what they want. That’s the beauty, and achilles heel, of unregulated capitalism. There’s a collective action problem. Each of us wants total privacy, but when all of us have total privacy, our security erodes.
The CCP also likely welcomes Apple’s privacy feature in the United States, where its spies can use iPhones without worrying about the FBI catching them. We’re thus becoming a democratic but disorganized rabble in the face of China’s highly-disciplined deployment of force, including through keeping Apple aligned with CCP interests.
Apple CEO Tim Cook made the June 7 announcement of the new privacy feature beneath a big sign that says “Privacy” with a locked apple logo. Cool, cute, and crowd-pleasing. Except for Chinese human rights activists and victims of crime in democracies, where Apple’s privacy sledge hammer protects the privacy of criminals, where a scalpel would have protected the privacy of only the law-abiding.
The new Apple feature is called “private relay” and will be unavailable in China and several countries close to China. According to Reuters, these include Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and the Philippines. Leaders in these countries, many of which are dictatorships, aren’t stupid. They’re going to hold onto power by violating the privacy of their citizens and catching human rights activists. Either Apple helps them do it, or Apple can’t sell in their countries. Apple responds by divulging the data to maximize its profit. Apple and avaricious dictators are two peas in a pod.
Each customer device, like a computer, tablet, or phone, has a unique IP address used to browse the internet. In compliant countries, Apple plans to keep itself, and the world, in the dark about each customer’s usage of the internet by first stripping the IP address from the traffic, and then routing the traffic through an outside company that assigns the traffic a temporary IP address. So, Apple knows the IP address but not the websites visited, and the outside company knows the websites visited, but not the IP address. That makes it rough-going for advertisers and the government who want to use “fingerprinting” to discover the characteristics or even identity of the customer by triangulating disparate pieces of information gleaned from customer behavior. Maybe “private relay” will even keep authoritarian regimes like China from discovering information about Apple users in the United States. Cue cheers from the internet.
But there’s an irony and overkill here in that citizens in democracies vote for the rule of law to protect themselves, but Apple is fighting hard to ensure that not only non-democratic third actors are barred from our browsing data, but our own democratic governments will be unable to enforce the laws arrived at by democratic means. Free people want their freedom and privacy, including from government. But this makes it more difficult for democratic governments of the free to catch those who would do free people harm.
So, democratic governments are weakened by the freedoms they guarantee, making them more vulnerable to takeover by autocratic governments who are advantaged by Apple because they do not allow the same freedoms to their citizens. Whereas Apple can’t get away with anything in China, so it cooperates with the government, it has the latitude to abuse its freedoms in the United States, and so takes full advantage of those freedoms by pressing them so far as to protect criminality.
In 2016, for example, Apple refused a law enforcement request for assistance in unlocking the iPhone of an Islamic State terrorist who killed 14 and injured 22 in San Bernardino, California. Privacy advocates used absurd slippery slope arguments to strike fear into citizens. If Apple opens the phone of this single terrorist, what’s to stop the government from requiring that Apple put security cameras in your bedroom?
Answer: The voters (who control the government) do not want security cameras in their bedrooms. They just want to catch the occasional terrorist.
We could think of the problem in market terms, with democracies demonstrating the superiority of their freedoms to non-democracies, whose citizens would overturn their dictatorships as a result. Then we could ignore Apple relatively empowering autocracies against democracies on an informational level, because democracies obtain much more power on a public opinion level through their demonstrations of freedom. Those who live under unfree governance should observe our freedoms and be so impressed as to overthrow their unfree governments. But they don’t seem to be doing so very quickly.
In fact the trend is the opposite, with increasing losses to freedom and democracy since 2006, according to Freedom House. Last year, perhaps in part because of the pandemic, was the worst year for freedom since the negative trend began. Almost 75 percent of people lived in a situation of deteriorating democracy in 2020. “Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists—lacking effective international support—faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings,” according to Freedom House. “These withering blows marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
Free people, and the governments they control, have to get smarter about using the tools at our disposal, including big tech, to promote freedom globally. Sometimes more absolute privacy from law enforcement in a democracy will just be used against us by the unfree who infiltrate our democracies in order to do freedom harm. There’s a subtle multi-level balance to be achieved here, and Apple is apparently not leaning in to help.
Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.