Apple is now doing its part to help construct the Chinese Internet gulag.
Late last week, Apple told Reuters news agency that the company will comply with Chinese authorities and move iCloud data, including cryptographic keys needed to unlock accounts, of mainland China customers to Chinese data centers.
Apple’s move, expected to occur at the end of this month, will make it far easier for Chinese authorities to access text messages, email and other data stored in the cloud. Apple said the decision was made in order to comply with new laws.
Until now, cryptographic keys have been stored in data centers in the U.S., and any government or law enforcement body seeking access to Chinese iCloud accounts needed to go through the U.S. legal system. The relocation of data now means that Chinese authorities will no longer have to go through U.S. courts and can use their own legal system to force Apple to hand over user data.
Human rights and privacy activists rightly fear that Chinese authorities will use their new ease of access to track down dissidents, as they did when Yahoo handed over Chinese user data more than a decade ago. That action resulted in the jailing of two Chinese dissidents.
Doing Business in China: Give it Up or Get Out
In response, Apple said: “While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful.”
This is the reality most U.S. companies face in China: hand over sensitive technology, store private data in China and partner with Chinese companies, or lose access to the Chinese market.
Restricted market access, stolen intellectual property and forced technology transfers have cost U.S. companies billions in revenue. Once seen as the inevitable cost of doing business in China, U.S. companies have become fed up with China’s demands, especially as more Chinese companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Anbang, Dalian Wanda Group and others operate without the same restrictions in the U.S. The pressure on the U.S. government to take a harder line on China has increased, and Trump recently won several concessions around technology transfers in his visit to Beijing in November.
Apple’s decision is a setback, but the biggest losers here are Chinese citizens who have relied on Apple to protect their data. In a first, Apple will partner with a Chinese state-owned firm, Guizhou – Cloud Big Data Industry Co Ltd., which has close ties to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. To access sensitive customer data, Chinese authorities simply need to provide a legal order to the partner firm, and it will have to (or readily) comply with the order.
Money or Morals?
Apple says that it explored all other options and was left with no choice but to comply with the new laws. Yet Apple has a short memory, and seems to have forgotten that its neighbor Google chose to quit China in 2010 after rejecting censorship demands and discovering that Gmail accounts of a number of Chinese human rights activists had been hacked.
For the sake of selling iPhones, Apple is doing its part to build China’s Orwellian surveillance state.