BEIJING (AP) — Apple removed a smartphone app that allows Hong Kong activists to report police movements from its online store Thursday after an official Chinese newspaper accused the company of facilitating illegal behavior.
Apple Inc. became the latest company to come under pressure to take Beijing’s side against anti-government protesters when the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said Wednesday the HKmap.live app “facilitates illegal behavior.” The newspaper asked, “Is Apple guiding Hong Kong thugs?”
The Hong Kong demonstrations began over a proposed extradition law and expanded to include other grievances and demands for greater democracy.
Apple said in a statement HKmap.live was removed because it “has been used to target and ambush police” and “threaten public safety.” It said that violated local law and Apple guidelines.
HKmap.live allows users to report police locations, use of tear gas and other details that are added to a regularly updated map. Another version is available for smartphones that use the Android operating system.
“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,” said the Apple statement. “This app violates our guidelines and local laws, and we have removed it from the App Store.”
A Twitter account linked to the app posted a statement denying it endangered police or Hong Kong residents. It said the app collects information from its users and public sources and doesn’t “solicit, promote or encourage criminal activity.”
The AP was unable to confirm whether the statement was posted by the app’s developers.
In Hong Kong, users of HK Maps said the application helped them steer clear of police patrols whose riot-control methods and policing during the crisis have been widely decried as heavy-handed, undermining public support for what long was considered one of Asia’s best police forces.
Office worker Acko Wong, 26, said he downloaded the app to help him avoid “danger and traffic” during the many protests that have shaken the city.
“If you know there are many police in that area, and I’m afraid they will arrest me for like wearing a mask or dressing in black or even if I’m young,” he told AP.
He said the argument that the app could be used to ambush police and could point criminals to areas where police aren’t stationed “does not make sense.”
“How do you ambush a group of police with equipment and gear like helmets and shields?” he asked.
Apple phone user Canny Ng said Apple’s decision was unacceptable and would make her think twice about buying more of the company’s technology. Although she’d not downloaded the app before it was removed, she has consulted the web-based version of HK Maps that is still live.
With a 6-month-old baby boy at home, Ng said she has not joined the protests. But the crisis has left her afraid of the police, making HK Maps “quite useful,” she said.
“I cannot accept what the police are doing right now,” she said.
That the app even exists “means that most of the Hong Kong people, maybe they’re really afraid of the police nowadays,” she said. “Even myself, I just want to find a way that I won’t see any police, especially when I’m wearing black. You’re worried that, oh, maybe they will check your ID.”
Activists complain Beijing and Hong Kong leaders are eroding the autonomy and Western-style civil liberties promised to the former British colony when it returned to China in 1997.
The criticism of Apple followed government attacks starting last weekend on the National Basketball Association over a comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets in support of the protesters. China’s state TV has canceled broadcasts of NBA games.
People’s Daily warned Apple’s reputation with Chinese consumers might suffer.
“Apple needs to think deeply,” the newspaper said.
Brands targeted in the past by Beijing have been subjected to campaigns by the entirely state-controlled press to drive away consumers or to disruptive investigations by tax authorities and other regulators.
China has long been critical to Apple’s business.
The mainland is Apple’s second-biggest market after the United States but CEO Tim Cook says it eventually will become No. 1.
Apple, headquartered in Cupertino, California, also is an important asset for China.
Most of its iPhones and tablet computers are assembled in Chinese factories that employ hundreds of thousands of people. Chinese vendors supply components for Mac Pro computers that are assembled in Texas.