CHINESE GOVERNMENT: Operating in China necessitates compliance with the government’s stringent censorship and cybersecurity laws. Simply ask Apple.
Civil rights activists have chastised Apple for complying with the country’s convoluted rules targeting dissent. In recent years, Apple has been accused of caving into Chinese censorship by removing a podcast app, a slew of mobile games, and a map app used by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.
Worryingly, more revelations about its cozy relationship with the Chinese administration continue to emerge. A damaging new report exposing the company’s handling of local data could lead to yet another ethical nightmare.
According to a slew of documents obtained by The New York Times, Apple has “ceded control” of its data centres in Guiyang — which is reportedly set to open next month — and the Inner Mongolia region to the Chinese government.
The compromises reportedly occurred in the aftermath of a 2016 law mandating that all “personal information and important data” collected in China be kept in China. Following that, Apple allegedly transferred the iCloud data of its Chinese customers from servers located outside the country to the network of Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a Chinese state-owned company (GCBD).
According to the Times, it did this on the advice of its China team as part of a project known internally as “Golden Gate.” This allegedly allowed Apple to avoid American laws that prohibit US companies from handing over data to Chinese law enforcement.
Apple reportedly clashed with the Chinese government over encryption but eventually moved the digital keys that unlock customers’ private data from the United States to China. Concerned Apple executives told the Times that the move could “endanger customers’ data.”
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It notified Chinese users of the changes as part of new iCloud terms and conditions, which named GCBD as the service provider and Apple as an “additional party.”
According to Apple, the update was released to “improve iCloud services in China mainland and comply with Chinese regulations.”
The publication, however, admitted that it had seen no evidence that the Chinese government had accessed the information. However, the underlying issue is that officials can still demand that data from local companies under the country’s strict surveillance laws — the same rules that were used to justify the US and its allies’ bans on Huawei.
Another, possibly more serious, the concern is the type of encryption technology Apple employs in China. After the Chinese government effectively banned Apple’s current iCloud system, the company allegedly planned to create new data storage security devices that would use an older version of iOS and low-cost hardware originally designed for the Apple TV.
Needless to say, the outdated technology has security experts concerned that the hardware modules pose a cybersecurity minefield that hackers could easily exploit.
Apple denies the claims made in the report. According to the company, the iCloud security was designed “in such a way that only Apple has control of the encryption keys.”
It went on to say that some of the documents seen by The Times were out of date and that its Chinese data centres “feature our very latest and most sophisticated protections.” Furthermore, the company stated that all third parties are disconnected from its internal network.
Aside from data handling, Apple continues to delete software proactively at the request of China’s censors. According to a Times investigation, tens of thousands of apps have vanished from Apple’s Chinese App Store in recent years, far more than was previously known.
Foreign news services, gay dating apps, and encrypted messaging apps are among them. It also blocked apps relating to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who fled China in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
According to the Times, Apple disputes those figures, claiming that some developers remove their own apps from China. It stated that in response to Chinese government demands, it had removed 70 news apps since 2017.
According to Apple, the majority of the apps it removed for the Chinese government were related to gambling or pornography, or operated without a government license, such as loan services and live streaming apps.