The alleged theft and sale of Apple customers’ private data has led to 22 arrests in China

Apple’s record on data privacy could be in danger.
Apple’s record on data privacy could be in danger.
Image: Reuters/ Thomas Peter
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Apple CEO Tim Cook is trying to build a reputation for his company as a leading voice in privacy advocacy. In 2015, he even went so far as to say privacy is a fundamental human right.

But after arrests in China announced yesterday (June 7), that reputation might be damaged. In early May, local police took 22 people with legitimate access to Apple’s internal database into custody, for selling private customer information such as phone numbers, names, Apple IDs, and other undisclosed data. The security bureau in Cangnan, in southern Zhejiang province, alleges that the network made more than $7 million (link in Chinese) selling the data.

The Cangnan security bureau’s WeChat post announcing the arrests is unclear as to whether the suspects are directly employed by Apple, or by Apple distributors and contractors in China. The announcement first says that in January, Cangnan police suspected “domestic Apple employees” of collecting and selling users’ personal data. But it also says that the 22 arrests, made in May, included 20 people from “domestic Apple direct-sales companies and contractors.” Apple declined to comment.

It’s unknown whether the data sold was strictly from Chinese customers of Apple. Also unknown is the extent and volume of data sold. The typical transaction was small, however, ranging from about $1.50 to $25 per sale, according to the security bureau.

These arrests make it clear that even if Apple could make impenetrable devices, data can never truly be relied on as secure.