China has reportedly increased its scrutiny of foreign-made consumer tech products, reviewing devices — including those made by Apple — to judge whether they pose a threat to the country's security. According to The New York Times, these reviews are conducted by personnel connected to the government's military and security agencies, and focus on features including encryption and data storage. The Chinese government has not disclosed any information about these audits, but local media reports suggest they might have started early last year.
Citing sources briefed on the reviews, the Times says that they often require foreign tech executives and employees to personally answer questions on individual products. These audits could be used to put pressure on tech companies, forcing them to reveal trade secrets or software vulnerabilities. Last month, Apple's general counsel Bruce Sewell told a congressional hearing that the Chinese government had requested access to the company's source code some time in the past two years, but that Apple had refused. (Sewell was answering questions related to the FBI's own demands that Apple unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.)
if china forces Apple to give up encryption keys, will other countries do the same?
Although details of China's tech auditing process are sparse, the reviews will play into ongoing negotiations between the country's government and foreign tech companies over privacy and censorship. Last year, China passed antiterrorism laws that critics feared would force companies to hand over encryption keys to the government (lawmakers later toned down the language), and last month, censors shut down Apple's ebook and movie stores in the country. There are fears that if China manages to extract security concessions from foreign tech companies, then other countries will follow suit.
According to the Times, Chinese president Xi Jinping recently gave a speech outlining two possible paths for the country. In one, China will aim to make foreign products "secure and controllable" (meaning more government oversight and access), and in the other, it will make a "fresh start," and instead pursue only its own domestic tech solutions. Xi reportedly concluded that the best path lay somewhere between these two, with the country needing to decide "which things can be imported but have to be secure and controllable," which tech can be "absorbed for re-innovation," and for "which things we must rely on our own strength and indigenous innovation." For companies like Apple, this could be the worst of both worlds: greater scrutiny from China's government, and greater competition from Chinese firms.