To operate in China, foreign technology companies must submit to strict government censorship and cybersecurity laws. Just ask Apple. The iPhone maker has been criticized by civil rights activists for respecting the country’s convoluted rules that target dissent. In recent years, Apple has been accused of acquiescing in Chinese censors to remove a podcast app, a raft of mobile games and one map application used by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Worryingly, more and more revelations detailing his warm relationship with the Chinese administration continue to surface. A damaging new report revealing how it treats local data could create another ethical nightmare for the company.
According to a multitude of documents reviewed by the The New York Times, Apple has “ceded control” of its data centers to Guiyang – which is expected to be completed next month – and the Inner Mongolia region to the Chinese government.
The compromises were reportedly made following a law passed in 2016 that required all “personal information and important data” collected in China to remain in the country. Subsequently, Apple would have moved the ICloud data of its Chinese customers from servers located outside the country to the network of a Chinese public company, known as Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). He did so on the advice of his Chinese team, according to the Time, as part of a project known internally as “Golden Gate”. It would also have allowed Apple to protect itself from US laws, which prohibit US companies from transmitting data to Chinese law enforcement.
Apple reportedly clashed with the Chinese government over encryption, but ultimately moved the digital keys that unlock the private information of customers from the United States to China. Alarmed Apple executives told the Time that this decision could “compromise customer data”.
He alerted Chinese users to changes under new iCloud terms and conditions that classified GCBD as a service provider and Apple as an “extra party.” Apple told customers that the update was aimed at “improving iCloud services in mainland China and complying with Chinese regulations.”
However, the publication admitted that it had not seen any evidence that the Chinese government had accessed the information. But, the underlying problem is that officials can still demand data from local businesses under the country’s strict surveillance laws – the same rules that were in part used to justify the bans. Huawei by the United States and its allies.
Another, arguably bigger, concern is the type of encryption technology Apple uses in China. After the Chinese government essentially banned its current iCloud system, Apple reportedly planned to build new security devices for data storage that used an older version of iOS and low-cost hardware originally designed for the Apple TV. Needless to say, outdated technology has scared security experts that hardware modules pose a cybersecurity minefield and could be easily hacked by hackers.
Apple denies the claims made in the report. The company said it designed iCloud security “so that only Apple has control over the encryption keys.” He added that some of the documents consulted by the Time were obsolete and that its Chinese data centers “have our latest and most sophisticated protections.” Additionally, the company said it keeps all third parties disconnected from its internal network.
Beyond data management, Apple also continues to proactively remove software at the behest of Chinese censors. A Time Analysis revealed that tens of thousands of apps have disappeared from Apple’s Chinese App Store in recent years, more than was previously known. They include foreign news services, gay dating, and encrypted messaging apps. It also blocked apps on the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Apple disputed these figures at Time, saying some developers are removing their own apps from China. He said since 2017, he had removed 70 news apps in response to requests from the Chinese government. According to Apple, the majority of the apps it removed for the Chinese government were related to gambling or pornography or worked without a government license, like loan services and live streaming apps.
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