Apple is under fire for moving iCloud data to China
Apple's latest move in China has privacy advocates and human rights groups worried.
26 February, 2018
The U.S. company is moving iCloud accounts registered in mainland China to state-run Chinese servers on Wednesday along with the digital keys needed to unlock them.
"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," Amnesty International warned in a statement Tuesday.
The criticism highlights the tradeoffs major international companies are making in order to do business in China, which is a huge market and vital manufacturing base for Apple (AAPL).
Related: Use iCloud in China? Prepare to share your data with a state-run firm
In the past, if Chinese authorities wanted to access Apple's user data, they had to go through an international legal process and comply with U.S. laws on user rights, according to Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which studies the intersection of digital policy and human rights.
"They will no longer have to do so if iCloud and cryptographic keys are located in China's jurisdiction," he told CNNMoney.
The company taking over Apple's Chinese iCloud operations is Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), which is owned by the government of Guizhou province. GCBD did not respond to requests for comment.
The change only affects iCloud accounts that are registered in mainland China.
Apple (AAPL) made the move to comply with China's latest regulations on cloud services. A controversial cybersecurity law, which went into effect last June, requires companies to keep all data in the country. Beijing has said the measures are necessary to help prevent crime and terrorism, and protect Chinese citizens' privacy.
The problem with Chinese cybersecurity laws, Deibert said, is that they also require companies operating in China "to turn over user data to state authorities on demand -- Apple now included."
Other big U.S. tech companies have had to take similar steps -- Amazon (AMZN) and Microsoft (MSFT) also struck partnerships with Chinese companies to operate their cloud services in the country.
Related: Apple is leading the race to $1 trillion
Apple says that it did advocate against iCloud being subject to the new law, but was unsuccessful.
"Our choice was to offer iCloud under the new laws or discontinue offering the service," an Apple spokesman told CNN. The company decided to keep iCloud in China, because cutting it off "would result in a bad user experience and less data security and privacy for our Chinese customers," he said.
Apple users typically use iCloud to store data such as music, photos and contacts.
That information can be extremely sensitive. Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders urged China-based journalists to change the country associated with their iCloud accounts -- which is an option for non-Chinese citizens, according to Apple -- or to close them down entirely
The company has stopped mentioning Microsoft Azure
Apple has confirmed that it uses Google’s public cloud to store data for its iCloud services in its latest version of the iOS Security Guide last month, as spotted by CNBC. Reports that Apple relied on Google’s cloud services surfaced in 2016 but were previously never confirmed.
Apple had previously used remote data storage systems provided by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. Apple’s edition of the iOS Security Guide in March 2017 still listed Microsoft Azure instead of Google Cloud Platform.
The new edition describes its iCloud service: “The encrypted chunks of the file are stored, without any user-identifying information, using third-party storage services, such as [Amazon] S3 and Google Cloud Platform.”