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Thousands of Russian officials to give up iPhones over US spying fears

Russian authorities have banned thousands of officials and state employees from using iPhones and other Apple products as a crackdown against the American tech company intensifies over espionage concerns.  The trade ministry said that from Monday it will ban all use of iPhones for “work purposes”. The digital development ministry as well as Rostec, the state-owned company that is under sanction by the west for supplying Russia’s war machine in Ukraine, have said they will follow suit or have already introduced bans. The ban on iPhones, iPad tablets and other Apple devices at leading ministries and institutions reflects growing concern in the Kremlin and the Federal Security Service spy agency over a surge in espionage activity by US intelligence agencies against Russian state institutions. “Security officials in ministries — these are FSB employees who hold civilian positions such as deputy ministers — announced that iPhones were no longer considered safe and that alternatives should be sought,” said a person close to a government agency that has banned Apple products. A month after President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, he signed a decree demanding that organisations involved in “critical information infrastructure” — a broad term that includes healthcare, science and the financial sector — switch to domestically developed software by 2025. The move reflected Moscow’s longstanding desire to make state institutions switch away from foreign technology. Some Russian analysts suggested the current edict will do little to assuage suspicions that western intelligence agencies are able to access sensitive information on Russian government activity. “Officials truly believe that Americans can use their equipment for wiretapping,” said Andrey Soldatov, a Russia security and intelligence services expert. “The FSB has long been concerned about the use of iPhones for professional contacts, but the presidential administration and other officials opposed [restrictions] simply because they liked iPhones.” Similar bans are already in place or about to be enforced in the finance and energy ministries and other official bodies, said the person close to the government agency. The ministries and the government did not respond to requests for comment. The trade ministry’s ban includes emailed correspondence relating to work activities, said its deputy head Vasily Osmakov, a measure that is being matched by other ministries. Another person close to one ministry said: “The specialists of IT department report when someone opens their work email from an iPhone. It’s easy to control.” A Rostec representative told the Financial Times that the restrictions apply to all Apple devices. But their use for personal purposes is still allowed. “Everyone complains that it’s inconvenient and they have to carry another phone or tablet,” the person close to a ministry added. Alexey Lukatsky, a Russian cyber security veteran, doubted whether officials will make a permanent switch to using devices running the rudimentary Russian-made Aurora operating system. “There were restrictions on the use of work email on devices not certified [by security services] before. But most officials did not comply. The question is whether they will comply now.” Moscow’s crusade against Apple began after the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, announced on June 1 that it had uncovered a “spying operation by US intelligence agencies using Apple devices”. “Everyone in the presidential administration is aware that the iPhone is a completely transparent device and its use for official purposes is unacceptable and prohibited,” Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said last month. According to the FSB, several thousand iPhones — both with Russian SIM cards and those registered with Moscow diplomatic missions in Nato countries as well as Israel, Syria and China — were “infected” with monitoring software that indicated Apple’s “close co-operation” with the US National Security Agency.

The FSB claimed without showing any evidence that Apple provides US intelligence services “with a wide range of control tools over individuals of interest to the White House”. Apple denied the allegations, saying in a statement that it “has never worked with any government to build a backdoor into any Apple product, and never will”. “When a big tech company . . . claims it does not co-operate with the intelligence community — either it lies shamelessly or it is about to [go bust],” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council and one of the fiercest hardliners, said about the statement. Medvedev’s reaction illustrates Russia’s disengagement from the west Russia. In 2010, Medvedev, then a relatively progressive president, visited the US to promote “restarted” relations between the two countries. On a visit to Silicon Valley he was the proud recipient of an iPhone 4 from Steve Jobs, former Apple chief executive.

Source: Financial Times