Tim Cook has written to Apple employees defending the company’s decision to remove an app used by Hong Kong protesters to coordinate movements and avoid concentrations of police.
But the chief executive has been criticised for “taking at face value” the claims of the Hong Kong police, which don’t chime with the experiences of international observers on the ground.
Cook wrote today to all Apple employees, defending the removal of HKmap.live from the iOS App Store. In the letter, a copy of which has been seen by the Guardian, Cook says “these decisions are never easy, and it is harder still to discuss these topics during moments of furious public debate. It’s out of my great respect for the work you do every day that I want to share the way we went about making this decision.
Hong Kong protests: Apple pulls tracking app after China criticism
“It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots and other information. On its own, this information is benign.
“However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimise individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law.”
But Cook’s claims have been disputed by those on the ground, who argue the violations described don’t match up with what the app displays. Individual officers are not displayed on the map, an online version of which is still live: only large concentrations of police are shown, with the stated intention of allowing protestors to avoid rather than confront law enforcement.
Similarly, the app does not display areas where “no police are present”, since it only focuses on police concentrations that are large enough to affect protests.
Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council, wrote to Cook saying he was “deeply disappointed with Apple’s decision to ban the app, and would like to contest the claims made by Hong Kong police force.
“HKmap.live helps HK residents, journalists, tourists, etc … avoid being hurt by teargas, rubber bullets, baton, beanbag round and water cannon that the Hong Kong police claims to be ‘minimum force’, and get real-time updates of public transport.
Today I wrote to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, to tell him his company’s decision to remove HKmap live app from Appstore will cause problems for normal Hong Kong’s citizens trying to avoid police presence while they are under constant fear ofpolice brutality. Values over profits, pls! pic.twitter.com/guaBfV8Pnf
In its initial response, the developer of HKmap.live said Apple’s decision to pull the app was “clearly a political decision to suppress freedom and human rights in #HongKong”.
Maciej Cegłowski, a software developer and activist who has been reporting from Hong Kong over the summer, tweeted that the claim the app violated the law was similarly unfounded. “Neither he or anyone else at Apple has specified which law this is. At a press conference today, Hong Kong authorities didn’t know either, and deferred all questions on the matter to Apple.”
‘Protecting rioters’: China warns Apple over app that tracks Hong Kong police
Others have noted the apparent double standards at play. A number of services, most notably the driving app Waze, prominently offer western users the option of avoiding police speed checks. Waze, a Google subsidiary, advertises the feature on the very first page of its entry on the iOS App Store. “Avoid traffic, police and accidents,” it says, with an icon depicting a police officer on the map.
“I offer my sincerest condolences to @waze,” Cegłowski tweeted, “which unlike HKmap is an app specifically intended for evading law enforcement, and which by Mr. Cook’s logic must therefore brace itself for imminent removal from the App Store.”