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This article was published on October 3, 2019

Apple reportedly pulls app that warns Hong Kong citizens about police activity (Updated)

Apple reportedly pulls app that warns Hong Kong citizens about police activity (Updated)
Ravie Lakshmanan

Apple has reportedly rejected an app that allows people in Hong Kong to keep track of protests and police activity in the city state from its App Store.

The app, called HKmap.live, is a Waze-like live map of the anti-extradition law amendment bill (ELAB) demonstrations that have gripped the autonomous region since June, keeping people abreast of road closures, tear gas firings, known safe places, and police presence.

According to the app makers, Apple said it refused to approve the app because “Your app contains content – or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity – that is not legal … Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.” However, the app is currently available for Android.

We’ve contacted Apple for comment, and we’ll update the story if we hear back.

The Hong Kong anti-government unrest reached a fever pitch yesterday after an 18-year-old activist was shot in the chest by the police force, making it the first injury from a live round. In a separate incident, an Indonesian journalist was permanently blinded in the right eye by a rubber bullet fired by the police.

With the government keeping a close eye on social networks — homegrown and foreign — in an attempt to stifle dissent, protestors have been increasingly embracing off-the-grid messaging apps to stay connected to each other and nullify the effects of censorship imposed on them.

An ethical blind spot

Although it’s not fully clear as to what made Apple pull the app, it’s a known fact that the company has made compromises before to conduct its operations in countries known for their contentious human rights violations, including China and Russia.

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer and Stanford professor, called out Apple CEO Tim Cook for his hypocrisy in a tweetstorm late last year:

China is an ethical blind spot for many in tech: We ignore the working conditions under which our beautiful devices are made, the censorship and surveillance necessary to ship apps there, the environmental externalities of coal-powered Chinese Bitcoin farms.

We don’t want the media to create an incentive structure that ignores treating Chinese citizens as less-deserving of privacy protections because a CEO is willing to bad-mouth the business model of their primary competitor, who uses advertising to subsidize cheaper devices.

Credit: Maciej Ceglowski / Pinboard
A live map of police presence in Hong Kong

What’s more, Apple’s decision to remove VPN apps from the App Store in 2017 to comply with Chinese and Russian regulations has proven to be prickly. But Cook defended the move during the company’s quarterly earnings call:

We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business. We strongly believe that participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there, and in other countries as well.

The App Store purge was hugely impactful because VPNs are the only means Chinese users can bypass state censorship controls to access the internet without restrictions.

Apple has long painted itself as a staunch defender of privacy and security in recent years, but actively assisting censorship and putting the safety of millions at risk crosses the red line of human rights.

Update on Oct. 4 3:00 PM IST: Apple is said to be reviewing its decision to reject HKmap.live app that’s designed to track police activity in the city, according to Bloomberg.

Update on Oct. 5 7:00 AM IST: Apple has now reversed its decision to ban HKmap.live, an app that lets people in Hong Kong keep track of protests and police activity. The developer of the app said Apple ‘finally made the right decision.’ HKmap.live for iOS can be downloaded right here.

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