iCloud data Compromised at Apple, China
May 24, 2021
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by Stephen Kanyi

Apple’s stores its iCloud data on Chinese servers run by state employees.

Last week The New York Times released a damning article about Apple capitulating to Chinese government demands in the country. While the company has been on the right side of the privacy debate in the United States, the article shows that it is not the case in China.

Entry into China
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been on a charm offensive in China for more than two decades. And understandably so. It is the second-largest country in terms of population and is an attractive destination for any big-tech company. However, entering such a highly controlled market forces you to comply with the rules of the central government. Some of which might directly contradict one’s own convictions.

For a company like Apple, whose pride lay in its commitment to privacy and data safety, entry into China would be an uphill battle, if they were to stick to their ideals. It meant walking a tight rope between protecting their Chinese customers’ data and pleasing the Central government.

And for some time, they actually managed to maintain that balance. Up until 2013, Apple was able to protect iCloud data from Chinese authorities. They even managed to successfully challenge 42 Chinese government requests for such data, according to statistics released by the company.

Legal Constraints
In November 2016 however, China approved a law that mandated all “personal information and important data” that is collected in China, to be kept in China. This was the tipping point for the tech giant. Apple had to comply with the new law or risk being shut down.

Apple could not afford such a huge loss, as China accounts for more than a fifth of its total revenue. Complying with the law meant that ceding all of the Chinese customer data to the authorities. iCloud enables customers to store some of their most personal data. This includes emails, personal contacts, photos and even the current location of the user.

Tim Cook agreed to move all that data to the servers of a Chinese state-owned company. However, Apple still had the encryption keys to that data and so for some time, Chinese customers’ data was safe from the authorities. But this remained a big sticking point between Apple and the Chinese authorities. While Apple kept these keys in the United States, the Chinese government wanted them on their territory.

A New Arrangement
Eight months later, Chinese officials got their wish. Apple handed over the encryption keys to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), a company owned by the government of Guizhou Province.

In this new arrangement, the Chinese government asked GCBD, and not Apple, for data. Apple extricated itself from possible consequences by requiring its users to consent to new terms and conditions. In their disclosure, they listed GCBD as the official service provider and Apple as an “additional party.”

It stated: “Apple and GCBD will have access to all data that you store on this service” and can share that data “between each other under applicable law.”

This post came in the wake of a hot debate on digital privacy in the public consciousness. It is a worrying indication that not even Apple can stand up to the surveillance ongoing in China. The more disturbing idea is that this might not be an isolated case, but a trend. Authoritarian states around the world might see Apple’s compromises as vilification of a new agreement between corporations and government to increase control over their own citizens.

If we are to maintain a truly free digital space, corporations like Apple and Google should perhaps, at times, prefer acting against the profit motive to protect privacy and freedom.

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