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Apple Pulls App That Tracks Police Activity in Hong Kong

Vlad Savov and Mark Gurman

(Bloomberg) -- Apple Inc. pulled the plug on an app that shows police activity in Hong Kong, reversing course yet again as violent pro-democracy protests wrack the city.

The U.S. company said Thursday it decided to remove HKmap.live from its App Store after consulting with local authorities, because it could endanger law enforcement and city residents. That marks a return to its original position, where it initially rejected the app. After an outcry, the iPhone maker allowed it to run for a few days before Thursday’s decision. The see-sawing is unusual for Apple, which exercises rigid control over its app store, the foundation of its global iPhone ecosystem.

Apple joins other foreign companies struggling to navigate the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as protests that began in June show no sign of abating. The issue has become a red line for those doing business in China, most recently drawing the National Basketball Association into a firestorm over a tweet that’s caused partners to stop doing business with the league and state television to halt airing its games. A growing number of American giants, including Activision Blizzard Inc., find themselves embroiled in controversies over the extent to which their actions are influenced by economic considerations in a vast Chinese market.

“Many concerned customers in Hong Kong have contacted us about this app and we immediately began investigating it,” Apple said in a statement. “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.”

Greater China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, is Apple’s largest market after the U.S. The iPhone maker is also one of the most visible symbols of corporate America in the world’s No. 2 economy. Apple recently pulled the Taiwan flag emoji from some iPhones, underscoring the difficult balance the company must strike in supporting free speech while appeasing China. Google, which pulled out of mainland China years ago, confirmed on Thursday that the HKmap.live app is still available in the Play app store in Hong Kong.

Charles Mok, a legislative counselor in Hong Kong, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Apple’s move and contested the company’s reasons in an open letter to Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.

“There are numerous cases of innocent passersby in the neighbourhood injured by the Hong Kong Police Force’s excessive force in crowd dispersal operations,” Mok wrote in the letter, which he posted on Twitter. “Information shared using HKmap.live in fact helps citizens avoid areas where pedestrians not involved in any criminal activities might be subjected to police brutality.”

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Apple’s reversal came after the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper criticized Apple for letting the app into its store. Protesters in the city used HKmap.live to monitor police whereabouts and it facilitated illegal activities, the People’s Daily said in a commentary late Tuesday. But the app’s developers rejected that view.

“We disagree with Apple’s claim that our app endangered anyone” in Hong Kong, the developer said in a statement.

Asked about Apple removing the app specifically, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang reiterated Beijing’s stance. “Recent events in Hong Kong are extreme, violent acts, challenging Hong Kong’s rule of law and order, threatening the safety of Hong Kong’s people, damaging Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” he said. “We should oppose such violence instead of supporting or condoning them.”

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(Updates with Mok letter to Apple CEO in sixth paragraph.)

--With assistance from April Ma and Sharon Chen.

To contact the reporters on this story: Vlad Savov in Tokyo at vsavov5@bloomberg.net;Mark Gurman in San Francisco at mgurman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Peter Elstrom

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