Tim Cook defends removal of Hong Kong protest app from the App Store

Apple has pulled the controversial HKmap.live app, which displays the location of police, from its app store following a critical op-ed in the People’s Daily, a Chinese state-owned newspaper. Apple CEO Tim Cook has defended the decision in an internal memo.

According to a report from Reuters, Apple based the decision on “credible information” from Hong Kong police, as well as from Apple itself. Reportedly, the app was being used “maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present.” That constitutes a violation of App Store guidelines, according to the company.

When Apple originally removed the app, an Apple spokesperson stated that the app had been used to “target and ambush police,” endangering public safety as a result.

“We created the App Store to be a safe and trusted place to discover apps. We have learned that an app, HKmap.live, has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong. Many concerned customers in Hong Kong have contacted us about this app and we immediately began investigating it. The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws, and we have removed it from the App Store.”

The developer of HKmap.live has taken to Twitter to publicly disagree with Apple’s decision, stating there is no evidence the app endangers residents and police in Hong Kong.

At this time, the HKmap.live website is still accessible from iPhone web browsers.

HKmap.live isn’t the only app to have been affected by Apple’s purge of pro-democracy apps. News app Quartz is also reporting it has been removed from the Chinese app store following alleged complaints from the Chinese government about Quartz’s coverage of the protests.

The controversy stems from an op-ed published in the Chinese state-owned newspaper, the People’s Daily. It launched an attack against Apple, warning the technology giant about the possible consequences of allowing the app HKmap.live, as well as other media that allegedly support independence for Hong Kong, onto its app store.

As reported by AFP, the op-ed in The People’s Daily takes aim at a couple of targets, including the NBA, but puts Apple firmly in its sights later in the piece. Accusing Apple of being an “accomplice to the rioters,” the article went on to warn that “Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision.” That decision refers to allowing an app that supplies information about police activity and protests around the Hong Kong area.

apple hk protest map hkmaplive
HKmap.live, showing live information about protests and police activity in Hong Kong. The app is used by protesters, and was recently removed from the Apple App Store.

The People’s Daily takes a particular stance on this, claiming the app allows rioters to avoid police and commit violent acts in other areas. This is a description of the app rejected by the app’s developer, who took to Twitter to point out that the app actually helps the police by highlighting “blue flag areas” — those areas where the police have temporarily deemed it illegal to assemble.

It isn’t just HKmap.live that The People’s Daily has an issue with — it refers to the app as only being the tip of the iceberg. It also mentions an independence-supporting song being allowed onto the Apple Music store — most likely referencing the song Glory to Hong Kong, which has become something of an anthem for the protesters. According to the piece, the song was removed from the store before being allowed back on again.

This is unlikely to be the last we hear of the technological sphere mixing with the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Professional Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai was banned from the Hearthstone Grandmasters competition for using his post-match interview to support the protesters in Hong Kong. The Chinese government was also accused of running disinformation campaigns through Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube.

Updated on October 10, 2019: Apple has pulled the HKmap.live from the App Store, and Tim Cook has defended the decision. 

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