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July 31, 2014

Russia to Apple, SAP: Is Your Source Code Spying on Us?

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

With the geopolitical situation between Russia and the United States getting worse seemingly by the day, and a new round of sanctions recently approved, it could be easily thought that things could go much farther down without involving weapons. But in this new age, weapons often start at the economic level, and to that end, the Russian government is reportedly proposing that Apple Inc. and SAP (News - Alert) offer Russia access to the source code used in the company’s product lines in a bid to make sure said systems aren't being used as spying tools against the Russian government.

The concept was first put forth last week following a meeting between Apple (News - Alert)'s general manager in Russia, Peter Engrob Nielsen, SAP's managing director in Russia, Vyacheslav Orekhov, and Russia's Communications Minister, Nikolai Nikiforov. After that meeting, the Russian government put out the proposal, saying that such a measure would help “ ensure the rights of consumers and corporate users to the privacy of their personal data, as well as for state security interests.”

Indeed, such a measure would offer just such a protection, but additionally, it would also offer a very dangerous proposition to Apple and SAP. For those not already familiar with the term, the “source code” is the essential underlying set of instructions that converts a software's basic function into instructions that its host machine can understand and interpret accordingly. An alteration in the source code can fundamentally alter the way the program works, or if it even works, and as such represents the “crown jewels” of a software company's operations.

While it may sound ludicrous in the extreme to hand over such code, reports suggest that Microsoft (News - Alert) has been offering up its source code since 2003, suggesting that perhaps the Russian government can keep such a code as safe as it would need to be. But there was a further stick involved in this arrangement, as the ministry noted that a continued relationship with companies that don't share source code is a prospect that “remains uncertain”.

Russia is asking a very big thing of Apple and SAP. Apple depends on proprietary software to run much of its hardware and applications alike, and SAP represents not only the fourth largest maker of business software on Earth, but also the largest technology company in Germany. To hand over source code, the thing that essentially powers a business, is almost unthinkable. Yet by like token, it's not hard to see where Russia might suspect that there might be some unfriendly code or logic bombs hidden in Apple and SAP code, especially given how widely used Apple and SAP products are. The Edward Snowden affair taught a lot of countries about just how far the National Security Agency is willing to go in a bid to get information, and that's likely left governments gun-shy.

But by like token, with sanctions already in place against Russia, particularly in the tech sector, is Russia going to have a lot of room to be quite so choosy about which systems it works with? It would be one thing if it had several firms to choose from, each providing a competing service, but for things like Apple and SAP's product lines, will Russia be able to make do with, say, Chinese and Indian Android-driven devices? The availability of substitute goods here may be something of an issue, and that may leave Russia in a position where it can't back up a veiled threat.

Edited by Adam Brandt
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