Last week, Apple transferred all iCloud accounts registered in China (and the digital keys needed to unlock them) to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), a sate-run company based in China’s Guizhou province.
GCBD has close ties to the Chinese government and the Communist Party.
What this means is that Chinese authorities will no longer have to go through an international legal process nor comply with US laws on user rights in order to access Apple’s user data. In other words, the Chinese government has access to Apple’s Chinese database.
Apple made the transfer in compliance with China’s latest regulation on cloud services, which requires foreign companies to store all of the data they generate from China inside the country. Microsoft and Amazon have already struck similar deals with Beijing in order to stay in business with China.
“With effect from 28 February 2018, iCloud services associated with your Apple ID will be operated by GCBD,” reads the official notice. “Use of these services and all the data you store with iCloud – including photos, videos, documents, and backups – will be subject to the terms and conditions of iCloud operated by GCBD.”
Apple’s decision is out of line with its previous efforts to fight for privacy rights in the US.
“While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” the company told reporters.
“Our choice was to offer iCloud under the new laws or discontinue offering the service,” said an Apple spokesperson. Discontinuing the service “would result in a bad user experience and less data security and privacy for our Chinese customers.”
In other words, Apple wants to continue generating income from its massive customer base in China and wants to keep buying cheap parts from its factories there.
Apple has promised not to respond to bulk data requests from the new Chinese datacenter. It says all requests for data will be visible in its transparency reports and insists it has procedures in place to prevent the Chinese government from using the data to oppress its citizens.
This is a joke.
The Chinese government already uses the databases of Tencent and Alibaba to spy on citizens, track dissidents, and censor online content. According to Chinese cybersecurity laws, companies operating in the country must hand over information to state authorities when they demand it. These laws now apply to Apple.
“The changes being made to iCloud are the latest indication that China’s repressive legal environment is making it difficult for Apple to uphold its commitments to user privacy and security,” warned Amnesty International.
“Chinese police enjoy sweeping discretion and use broad and ambiguously constructed laws and regulations to silence dissent, restrict or censor information, and harass and prosecute human rights defenders and others in the name of ‘national security’ and other purported criminal offenses.”
China’s legal processes are very different than those in the US. “Court approval isn’t required under Chinese law and police can issue and execute warrants,” reports Reuters.
Starting from the very beginning of an investigation, Chinese authorities have broad powers to collect data. “There are few penalties for breaking what rules do exist around obtaining warrants…And while China does have privacy laws, there are broad exceptions when authorities investigate criminal acts, which can include undermining communist values, picking quarrels online, or even using a virtual private network to browse the Internet privately.”
Apple’s decision highlights the steep price of doing business with a communist country (a country that just so happens to make up a fifth of Apple’s revenue).
“China is an authoritarian country with a long track record of problematic human rights abuses, and extensive censorship and surveillance practices,” says digital policy rights expert Ronald Deibert. Anyone with an iCloud account registered in China should take “extra and possibly inconvenient precautions not to store sensitive data on Apple’s iCloud.”
Author’s Note: Users can choose to enable iCloud when setting up or updating their iPhone. If you click yes, the service automatically backs up your data.
Setting it up is so easy that many people don’t even realize their information is being stored (I had an account for years before I knew about it).
Apple says all Chinese users have the option to stop using iCloud, but the company did not specify whether it would be changing the default settings to make iCloud an opt-in rather than an opt-out service.
The changes will only affect users with accounts registered in mainland China (citizens of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau will not be affected). Apple says over 99% of users have already agreed to the new terms of service.