Both Apple and Google have shut down a voting app that could help opposition parties organize a parliamentary election against the Kremlin in Russia over the weekend. Companies have removed the app from their App Store After the Russian government was accused of interfering in their country’s internal affairs on Friday, President Vladimir Putin made clear attempts to obstruct free elections and stay in power.
The smart voting app was created to identify potential candidates to defeat members of the government-backed United Russia party as part of a larger strategy organized by supporters of imprisoned Russian activist Alexei Navalny to rally anti-Putin voters. To thwart the opposition’s efforts, the Russian government has told Google and Apple that the app is illegal, and has threatened to arrest employees of both companies in the country.
The move comes amid a massive crackdown on Russia’s Big Tech. Earlier this week, a Russian court fined Facebook and Twitter for not removing “illegal” content and the country was blocking people’s access to Google Docs, which Navalny supporters have been using to share a list of preferred candidates.
– Ivan Zhadanov (@ioannZH) September 17, 2021
Critics say the episode serves as an example of why Apple, in particular, cannot be trusted to protect people’s civil liberties and resist government pressure. The company strictly controls the software that is approved on millions of devices, and recently it has been accused of monopolizing its app store, the only way to install apps on the iPhone and iPad. Although Google is being accused of censorship claims, Android users can still access the app without relying on the Google Play Store, although it is more difficult.
“Android users in Russia can find other ways to install this app, while Apple is actively helping the Russian government make it impossible for iOS users,” Ivan Greer, director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, told Reikod. “Apple’s top-down exclusive approach is at the root of their losses.”
Apple insisted last month that it actually has the ability to resist this kind of government influence. The company said so when it announced a new photo-scanning iPhone feature that meant identifying images containing child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Apple explained that the tool would include downloading a national missing and exploited child (NCMEC) photo database in the form of a numeric code on each iPhone. The update will run those codes against photos stored in users’ iCloud accounts, look for matches that will be reported to human reviewers, and then to NCMEC.
While stopping child abuse is certainly successful, this tool has created a lot of concern for privacy advocates. Some said the update was like making Apple “a back door” to the iPhone, which could easily exploit bad actors or the government to ask for information about their citizens. Apple has postponed the update in the face of growing criticism. But the company also insisted it would never bow to government pressure.
The company said, “We have faced demands for making and deploying government-directed changes that have previously violated users’ privacy, and have steadfastly rejected those claims.” “We will continue to reject them in the future.”
Apple has long marketed privacy as a feature of its products. After the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, Apple famously rejected the FBI’s claim that the company would build the back door of the iPhone. Earlier this year, Apple updated the iPhone’s operating system to allow users to opt out of app-based trackers used on platforms like Facebook. Nonetheless, the company’s move to remove a voting app in Russia on Friday shows that there is a limit to Apple’s genuine will to oppose government intervention.
The smart voting app was meant to help supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in this weekend’s parliamentary elections.
Neither Apple nor Google has commented on this story.
Apple’s vague promises to protect its users’ civil liberties are particularly worrying because the company still insists it should control large portions of the software available on the iPhone. While developers like Epic Games are pushing back against this “walled garden” approach, Apple still manages to maintain a wide range of prudence about what programs and applications run on its devices. But as recent events in Russia make clear, tight control over Apple’s App Store could be abused by authoritarian governments.
“Apple was trying to create censorship in the operating system, adding technology that could search our own phones for banned files,” warned Albert Fox Kahn, director of the STOP of the alert technology surveillance project. “But if one government can search CSAM, another government can search religious texts and political discourse.”