Apple has found itself in a bit of hot water after a report by the New York Times accused the company of giving control of its soon to be completed data centres in Guiyang over to the Chinese govt. As I am sure you are all aware, China doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to internet and data freedom.
The Chinese government has an iron grip on what can and can’t be said, used or seen over the internet. It is so dire that in China the only way you can access certain services is by hedging your bets with a VPN or be content with what the Chinese government wants you to use.
With big tech companies operating in a number of countries and jurisdictions, there are compromises that they have to reach with the local authorities. In China, however, the rules of engagement are far stricter than in many other places in the world.
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An example of this (and the reason why Apple supposedly gave over its data centres), is a law that was passed in China in 2016 that requires all personal information data collected in China to remain within its borders.
This resulted in Apple moving the iCloud data for its Chinese customers, which it stored off-shore, onto the mainland. The new location for the servers is a facility that is within the network of Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBG), a Chinese state-owned company.
Now, if you have watched any of Apple’s events you’ll know that the one thing that the company has been chiming of late is its commitment to civil liberties and privacy. We saw this when the iOS 14 update the company launched earlier this year had a provision to turn off app tracking.
However, to remain operational in one of the biggest markets in the world Apple appears to have gone against this by seemingly offering up customer data to the Chinese govt. It should be noted that of all the documents gleaned by NY Times, the publication admitted that it hadn’t seen any indication or proof that the Chinese govt had accessed any data.
The concern now is that having the information in a location that they have some measure of control over, the Chinese govt can simply request access to user data. Furthermore, Apple was said to have disagreed with the Chinese govt when it came to the location of the digital encryption keys. Apple wanted to keep the keys in the US but apparently gave in and moved or is moving them to China.
What did Apple have to say about all of this?
Apple has, of course, disputed the allegations that were made in the NY Times report. The company said that some of the documents that the NY Times saw were dated and that its data centres in China have the most robust security measures. On the point of the encryption keys, Apple said that they are the only ones who have control over them and iCloud security by design.
All of that being said it’s good to remember that Apple has been deleting apps and content that the Chinese govt deems unseemly. In December last year, Apple purged thousands of apps from its Chinese App Store. It should also be mentioned that this move to keeping user data in China protects Apple from US laws that prohibit American companies from handing over data to Chinese law enforcement.