China flagged security problems with iPhones, marking the government’s first comments on reports that authorities are moving to restrict officials’ use of Apple products.
“We noticed that there have been many media reports about security incidents concerning Apple phones,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
China plans to expand a ban on the use of iPhones to a plethora of state-backed companies and agencies, Bloomberg News reported this month, a sign of growing challenges for Apple in its biggest foreign market and global production base. Several agencies have begun instructing staff not to bring their iPhones to work.
“China has not issued laws and regulations to ban the purchase of Apple or foreign brands’ phones,” Mao said, adding that the government attaches “great importance” to security and that all companies operating in China need to abide by its laws and regulations.
Mao’s comments about security incidents were slightly different in the official English translation of the news briefing. That translation, delivered simultaneously on-site by the ministry, omitted the reference to media “reports.” Foreign Affairs Ministry briefings are typically rigorously controlled and spokespeople’s responses are usually scripted ahead of time with consistent translations.
The news conference came just hours after Apple unveiled its latest model of the marquee device, the iPhone 15. The company unveiled four new models, keeping pace with the past few generations: the iPhone 15, 15 Plus, 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max. Apple’s shares were little changed in premarket trading.
A spokesperson for Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Apple has faced a number of security issues in recent months. An iPhone belonging to a staffer at a Washington-based civil society organization was hacked remotely with spyware created by Israel’s NSO group. Apple confirmed the attack and issued a patch last week to address the issue.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, in June accused an unidentified U.S. intelligence agency of hacking several thousand iPhones. The attacks were linked to SIM cards registered with Russia-based diplomats, including some from China, it said.
Apple didn’t comment at the time on whether any Russian phones were breached, but a spokesperson said the company did not help any government in the alleged attack, as the FSB implied.
If Beijing goes ahead with an iPhone ban, the unprecedented blockade will be the culmination of a years-long effort to root out foreign technology use in sensitive environments, coinciding with Beijing’s effort to reduce its reliance on American software and circuitry. Just over a week ago, Huawei Technologies quietly unveiled a smartphone with a chip a few years behind the cutting edge, which Chinese state media hailed as a triumph over U.S. sanctions intended to curb the country’s rise.
Beijing has established laws to severely restrict the flow of information beyond China’s borders, and tighten its grip on the enormous amounts of data that will be key to controlling the world’s No. 2 economy. While Apple has for years kept data on Chinese users completely in-country through a partnership with a state-backed data center operator, other foreign firms have struggled with new regulations that they fear could hamper their ability to operate.
Those rules give President Xi Jinping’s administration the power to shut down or fine companies that leak or mishandle sensitive information. This year, Beijing also enforced an anti-spying law that foreign multinationals fear could grant authorities unprecedented powers to crack down on their operations.
In Apple’s case, a ban threatens to erode Apple’s position in a market that yields about a fifth of its revenue, and from where it makes the majority of the world’s iPhones through sprawling factories that employ millions of Chinese. Several analysts have argued Huawei’s new phone will take market share from Apple, along with domestic competitors.
For now, it’s unclear how many companies or agencies could eventually adopt restrictions on personal devices, and there’s been no formal or written injunction as yet, Bloomberg News reported. State firms or organizations will likely vary in how strictly they enforce such bans, with some forbidding Apple devices from the workplace while others could bar employees from using them entirely.
Bloomberg’s Lulu Shen and Sarah Zheng contributed to this report.