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Govt staff should be banned from using iPhones

2014-07-30 13:41 Global Times Web Editor: Qin Dexing

Apple has finally acknowledged that its staff can extract personal data including text messages, contact lists and photos from iPhones through previously unpublicized techniques. This ongoing and fermenting incident poses a severe security challenge.

In recent years, the controversies surrounding the security of iPhone have never died down, but haven't led to grave consequences. The incident constitutes a grave issue from the perspective of codes of practice and related laws and regulations. Whether Apple can still dismiss it lightly remains to be seen.

Smart phones possess far more serious security problems than traditional personal computers. Smart mobile devices including iPhone and iPad involve much more information than personal computers and possess multilayered values because of their dynamic, real-time and holographic nature.

For instance, the US NSA can obtain text messages, telephone conversations, contact lists, voice mails, geographical positions of the phones, records, and other various types of information via an eavesdropping tool called "Dropout Jeep." In this way, users' privacy and data are completely exposed to them.

Of course, common users are not highly vigilant about problems related to their privacy, and many potential customers whose data have been hacked can barely realize that there is anything wrong. Therefore, the news that Apple can acquire users' private information will hardly cause widespread worry from the public. However, China has listed cyber security, whether for users' privacy or State information, as a national strategic issue. Officials and the general public should keep alert against any security loopholes in the iPhone system.

The government should not sit idle any more, but instead ask Apple to render an explicit explanation, let a credible third party to evaluate the degree of the severity of the incident, and eventually figure out an appropriate solution. Apple will continue to downplay the problem if the government fails to attach importance to it. So the government should take into consideration the interests of the silent majority of users.

Civil servants affiliated with the Party, government and army institutions and organizations as well as key staff engaged in important infrastructure should be forbidden from using Apple products. Since iPhone applies a closed system integrating hardware, software and cloud service where other firms and security vendors cannot participate, only Apple itself is able to affect its security-related problems. And it is difficult to carry out public, transparent and effective assessment and make improvement accordingly.

Second, public servants should change iPhones, if they use one, for domestically produced cellphones that adopt the relatively stable Android system developed by Google. The Android system is relatively open and provides a lot of source code and as a result improves cyber security to a certain degree through secondary development and security reinforcing measures.

The long-term solution lies in promoting a domestic mobile operating system. The government must formulate strategies and introduce massive supportive policies. But we must also draw lessons from the failure to develop a commercially competitive operating system in the past decade, so as to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Apple relates to not just the trade and politics between China and the US, but also complex, intertangled interests. Any policy against Apple will cause ripple effects. However, this potential hazard will test China's strategic determination toward cyber security.

  The author Fang Xingdong is founder of chinalabs.com and director of the Center for Internet and Society at Zhejiang University of Media and Communications.

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