Tim Cook defends Apple's removal of Hong Kong map app

The Apple chief executive said was removed because it was being used in ways which could threaten public safety.

Apple boss Tim Cook has defended the company’s decision to remove a Hong Kong mapping app from its online store.

In an internal memo to Apple staff which subsequently appeared online, the chief executive reiterated Apple’s stance that the app was taken down because it was being used in a manner that could threaten public safety.

The app, which has been used by activists and others in Hong Kong during the ongoing protests, uses crowd-sourcing data to allow users to report police locations, use of tear gas and other details that are added to a regularly updated map.

On Thursday, human rights campaigners accused Apple of caving in to political pressure from China and enabling state censorship by removing the app.

In his memo, Mr Cook echoed an earlier Apple statement which said the company received reports which alleged that the app was being used to target individual police officers and that it violated Apple’s guidelines as well as “local laws”.

“The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hot spots, and other information,” Mr Cook said.

“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. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.”

Neither Apple nor Mr Cook have provided details of any specific incidents involving the use of the app and the targeting of police.

Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at charity Human Rights Watch, called Apple’s initial statement “disingenuous”, noting that the complaints had come from a branch of the Hong Kong police – which she argued was “hardly a disinterested party in this dispute”.

Charles Mok, Hong Kong’s legislative councillor for information technology, said he was “deeply disappointed” with Apple’s decision.

In an open letter to Mr Cook, he contested the claims made by the police.

“There are numerous cases of innocent passers-by in the neighbourhood injured by the Hong Kong Police Force’s excessive force in crowd dispersal operations,” he said.

“ helps HK residents, journalists, tourists etc identify ‘danger zones’ and avoid being hurt by tear gas, rubber bullets, baton, bean-bag rounds and water cannon that the Hong Kong police claims to be ‘minimum force’, and get real-time updates of public transport, who rely on the app to avoid being harassed and beaten up by police for no reason.”

A version of the mapping app remains available for smartphones that use the Android operating system, and the platform can also be accessed on a web browser.

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