China clears iPhone 6 for sale only after security tweaks

A Chinese regulator has claimed it found security flaws in Apple's iOS software that could steal user's data

China has effectively cleared the iPhone 6 for sale in the country, granting the product a license, but not before a government regulator demanded Apple make some security changes in the iOS operating system to fix suspected flaws in the software.

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) recently granted the iPhone 6 a network access license, the government regulator said in an online posting on Tuesday, following weeks of speculation about the delay in the approval.

The government's online database referred to network access licenses being granted to four Apple phones on Tuesday, which may also probably include the company's large screen smartphone, the iPhone 6 Plus.

While inspecting the phones, the Chinese regulator also looked for suspected security flaws in iOS software that media outlets have reported on. These suspected flaws involved "three background services" that can be exploited to retrieve users' private information, MIIT said in its posting.

The Chinese regulator's own checks found that the three background services could be exploited in two ways. Hackers can steal users' private information by gaining access through approved devices linked to the iPhone, or when the phone is in repair, MIIT said without elaborating.

The regulator demanded changes be made, and Apple responded stating that the three background services were diagnostic tools, and that the company will never interfere with users' information without their permission.

In addition, Apple took measures with its new iOS 8 software to address the concerns, and make it harder to exploit the background services, MIIT said. The company also promised it would never work with government groups to create backdoors in its software.

Apple did not immediately comment. The company has been facing allegations in recent months over suspected security flaws in its software, with some of the criticism coming from China.

In July, Apple's iPhone came under fire from the country's state-controlled CCTV in a segment that alleged the iOS 7's "Frequent Locations" feature could be used to secretly track user's locations. Apple later dismissed the claims, and said that the company has no access to phones using the Frequent Locations feature.

China's scrutiny of the iPhone 6, however, signals that the government is still concerned about the device's software. Tuesday's posting from MIIT is probably the first time the regulator has issued a statement on a phone receiving a network access license. Typically, smartphones receive no such mention, save for the online government database that tracks network access licenses.

In its posting, MIIT said it was paying "great attention" to protecting user's privacy on smartphones. "If it's discovered that any related businesses are involved in violating user's privacy, they will be investigated and dealt with according to the law," the regulator said.

In May, China threatened to block companies from selling IT products in the country, if they failed to pass a new "cybersecurity vetting system" to check for secret surveillance activities.

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Tags smartphonesregulationAppleiPhoneconsumer electronicsExploits / vulnerabilities

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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