What happens to Apple’s iCloud in China

Apple’s much-vaunted principles melt away under China’s cybersecurity law, which allows the state to access our data

Here’s your starter for 10. Question: Apple’s website contains the following bold declaration: “At Apple we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.” What ancient English adage does this bring to mind? Answer: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In other words, what matters is not what you say, but what you do.

What brings this to mind is the announcement that from now on, iCloud data generated by Apple users with a mainland Chinese account will be stored and managed by a Chinese data management firm – Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). “With effect from 28 February 2018,” the notice reads, “iCloud services associated with your Apple ID will be operated by GCBD. 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.”

The new terms and conditions for Apple users in China contain a clause. “If you understand and agree,” it reads, “Apple and GCBD have the right to access your data stored on its servers. This includes permission sharing, exchange and disclosure of all user data (including content) according to the application of the law.”

So what’s behind this change? Well, basically, Apple is moving the personal data and content of its mainland Chinese users to a place inside the country’s borders to comply with China’s sweeping new cybersecurity law which requires foreign companies to store all of the data they generate from China inside China’s borders.

Henceforth, cloud services in China have to be operated by Chinese companies, so foreign outfits must either lease servers in China or establish joint ventures with local partners. Apple has chosen the latter option, which, it says, “will allow us to improve the speed and reliability of our iCloud services products while also complying with newly passed regulations that cloud services be operated by Chinese companies.”

That guff about improving “the speed and reliability of our iCloud services” is the usual corporate cant designed to conceal a harsh reality – which is that henceforth everything that Chinese Apple users store in the cloud will be accessible to the Chinese state. And although the data is encrypted, Apple will, apparently, have to store the encryption keys in China – which means that its joint venture will have to comply with the cybersecurity law and provide them to the Chinese authorities if required. As Amnesty International points out, “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 offences.”

So what’s new? In one sense, nothing: we’ve known for ages that there are no bargains that western tech companies will not make with an authoritarian state in order to gain access to the fastest-growing market in the world. But until now, Apple has laid claim to the moral high ground in this area – as witnessed not only by the aforementioned website declaration about privacy as a human right, but also by its principled stand in 2016 against the demands of the FBI to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter.

Cynics used to point out that this kind of high-mindedness came cheap for Apple, since the company made its money by selling expensive hardware at premium prices. It didn’t sully itself with the “surveillance capitalism” practised by Google and Facebook, which depended on exploiting the data of its users in return for the provision of “free” services. That was indeed true in earlier times. But Apple has discovered over the last decade that “services” (apps, music, videos, photos) are also a hugely lucrative business line. In fact, if its services business were a separate company, it would already be in the Fortune 100. And iCloud is the indispensable enabler of that business – which means that Apple is now into cloud computing and user data-hosting in a big way.

Hence the servile cringe of the February 28 announcement. Corporations can blather on all they like about corporate responsibility and human rights, but, in the end, maximising shareholder value is all that counts. And Apple is determined to get to that trillion-dollar valuation no matter what. So if you’re an Apple user in China, you now have a simple choice: junk your iPhone, iPad and fancy Macbook laptop; or accept that your autocratic rulers can access your data at their convenience. In which case, whatever you say, say nothing – as they used to say in Belfast.

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Contributor

John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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