Senator Ted Cruz, who just last year expressed his support for a governmental backdoor into the iPhone, is absolutely outraged that Apple would restrict the freedom and privacy of Chinese citizens by removing VPN apps from its App Store in China. And he’s sent a strongly worded letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook demanding answers.
In July, Apple admitted that it had bowed to demands by the Chinese government to remove various VPN apps from its service. China keeps a tight leash on what’s permitted on the internet within its borders, and its censorship has earned the nickname “The Great Firewall.” To gain access to the world wide web, Chinese citizens have used VPN services for years to get around authorities. This practice has been tolerated for the most part, but this year has seen a renewed vigilance towards online censorship in the country. Cook expressed his disappointment that Apple was required to remove the apps, but chalked it up as a cost of doing business. During an earnings call in July, he told investors:
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 participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well.
In a letter jointly signed by Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, Cook was taken to task on Thursday for the decision. “If these reports are true, we are concerned that Apple may be enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the internet,” the senators wrote.
After mentioning China’s “abysmal human rights record,” the senators point out that the Cyberspace Administration of China has issued regulations this year “which would essentially eliminate online anonymity in China.” Then the senators proceeded to turn Tim Cook’s own words against him. They recalled the Free Expression Award that the Apple CEO received at the Newseum earlier this year. In his acceptance speech, Cook said that Apple takes its responsibility to protect speech seriously. “First we defend, we work to defend these freedoms by enabling people around the world to speak up,” he said. “And second, we do it by speaking up ourselves. Because companies can, and should have values.” The senators then pointed out that if Apple complies with censorship demands in China, “it inhibits free expression for users across China.”
The letter proceeds to ask for specific answers on what Apple did to resist the demands of Chinese authorities and what it’s doing to reinstate the apps that have been removed from its service. We’ve reached out to Apple to see if it has a response to the senators’ questions but have not yet received a reply.
That’s all fine and good. American companies’ willingness to go against their own principles in order to gain access to the Chinese market is worthy of derision. And Apple certainly isn’t alone: the Chinese arm of Amazon’s Web Service has also recently been called out for helping enforce the government’s selective ban on VPNs. But the sanctimony coming from Ted Cruz is rich.
The universally loathed senator from Texas has abdicated his duty to protect the privacy of Americans by supporting the FBI’s calls for a backdoor that would allow them to bypass encryption. In 2016, he simultaneously bragged that he’s a “constitutionalist” who supports the fourth amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure while saying that Apple should comply with an order to unlock the iPhone belonging to the suspects in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Cruz told a group at a town hall meeting in South Carolina that the order was legal because it asked Apple to “open this phone, not Anderson’s phone, not everyone’s here, open this phone.” But like many people in the US government, Cruz has refused to comprehend the simple logic that encryption is a zero-sum game. Opening that phone, does, in fact, run the risk of opening everyone’s phone.
When the controversy over the FBI’s insistence that Apple unlock the phone was at its peak, Tim Cook became a sort of hero for the encryption cause. He explained on numerous occasions that Apple’s encryption was designed specifically so that it doesn’t have a key to unlock your data. “We have a responsibility to help you protect your data and your privacy,” he told an audience in 2016. “We owe it to our customers and we owe it to our country.” Cook correctly told 60 Minutes that “the reality is if you put a backdoor in, that backdoor’s for everybody, for good guys and bad guys.”
Apple stood its ground and the FBI eventually paid a huge sum of money to a private party that was able to break the iPhone’s security. But the issue hasn’t gone away. Fired FBI Director James Comey brought up the need for a backdoor for law enforcement earlier this year, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave a speech this month in which he called for “responsible encryption” that would give his agency access to data when it was needed.
We also learned in January that now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn’t understand encryption either. During his confirmation hearing, he was asked if he agrees that strong encryption protects the “country from cyberattack and is beneficial to the American people’s’ ‘digital security.’” Sessions replied that encryption “serves many valuable and important purposes,” but it is also critical “that national security and criminal investigators be able to overcome encryption.” The man who asked Sessions that question: Senator Patrick Leahy.
Leahy has a long track record as someone who understands the issues of cybersecurity and over 20 years ago, he became the first senator to use encryption. He has also taken a stand against the Justice Department’s cries for backdoor access. Leahy gets it. And there’s no reason to begrudge him co-signing his letter with a member of the opposing party.
What’s remarkable about this letter is the way it highlights the hypocrisy of both Cook and Cruz. In Cook’s case, he’s all for privacy protections as long as they don’t interfere with the bottom line. Following the revelations of NSA spying by Edward Snowden, Apple saw the consumer demand for privacy go up, and it responded to the market opportunity by offering what’s arguably the most secure smartphone around. When defending his decision to resist the FBI’s order to unlock the iPhone, Cook also cited the damage that doing so would cause to Apple’s reputation, thus harming its business. In the end, it’s always profits first, ideals second.
In Cruz’s case, who knows what he’s thinking at any particular moment? But it’s clear that he’s happy to stand up for freedom when it involves the citizens of a country other than our own. Not only would weakened encryption make all citizens (and governments) more vulnerable to cyber attacks, but we see more and more that US authorities would only abuse the access to data if it were provided. Most recently, the Justice Department attempted to collect “contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people,” who visited a website related to the protests that occurred in Washington, DC during the inauguration of Donald Trump. The DOJ later narrowed its request after public outcry. But the lesson is clear: law enforcement’s thirst for your information knows no bounds.