Apple’s head of legal says it refused China’s request for its source code

Apple’s head of legal has denied a long-standing rumor that it has collaborated with the Chinese government to provide its source code.

There’s been plenty of speculation over this issue, since China is one of Apple’s most important markets and the country’s government has a reputation for its tough stance on tech companies — it has literally embedded police into the country’s top businesses, for example, and blocked Western services that it sees as a threat to its regime.

In the case of Apple, which saw revenue from China grow 14 percent year-on-year to reach a colossal $18.37 billion in Q1 2016, there is much ambiguity over its relationship with the state. Beijing somewhat cryptically praised Apple in January 2015 for allowing “security checks” the implications of which, as Quartz reported, were unclear.

Some speculated this was a case of Apple capitulating to the demands of the government in order to maintain its lucrative business in China, but, speaking under oath at a congressional hearing around encryption on Tuesday, Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell denied any such claim.

Responding directly to an allegation raised by Indiana State Police Captain Charles Cohen, Sewell admitted that China had asked for the code, but said that Apple declined.

“We have not provided source code to the Chinese government. We did not have a key 19 months ago that we threw away,” Sewell said. “Those allegations are without merit.”

Apple also stressed the point in court filings:

Screenshot 2016-04-20 12.24.00

Cohen claimed to have cited media reports, rather than providing his own intel, but Sewell’s response is the highest profile (public) comment Apple has made on the issue to date. The phone maker has previously kept quiet, perhaps to avoid the risk of spotlighting the sensitive issue with Chinese authorities, but there are other examples to suggest it is safeguarding user data in China with the same vigor that we’ve seen in the U.S. — around the San Bernardino iPhone, in particular.

Apple moved to secure its data in China when it began encrypting data stored on Chinese soil for the first time in August 2014. And while its encryption features within iOS 8 have thwarted the U.S. government’s efforts to access user data, they also make Chinese user data more secure. Perhaps related, China’s government has been accused of carrying out “malicious attacks” to deceive iCloud users into providing access to their data and accounts.