When VPNs, which can be used to circumvent censorship and surveillance, were withdrawn from Apple’s Chinese App Store at the Chinese government’s request last August, RSF voiced concern that Apple product users could one day find their personal data being shared with “the extended family that is the Chinese Communist Party. “
This nightmare is unfortunately in the process of being realized. “To improve the speed and reliability” and “comply with Chinese regulations,” control of iCloud in China is to be transferred to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), a company linked to the government of the southern province of Guizhou, on 28 February.
RSF alerts journalists and bloggers using iCloud China to the danger that this migration poses to their security and the security of their sources, and urges them to migrate their account to another geographic region or to close it by 28 February. Most of the personal data of Apple app users, including contacts, photos, files, email, Internet connection history, geolocation data and passwords, are stored on iCloud. Other global companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Amazon also store data in China, but in their case the amount of personal data is much smaller.
“Apple promises that it will never give governments a backdoor to content, but there is no way of being sure about this,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “Knowing the Chinese government’s determination and the extent of the means of pressure at its disposal, it will end up getting its way sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.”
Apple’s lawyers clearly have few illusions about the future iCloud service’s confidentiality because they have added a clause to the user agreement that says: “Apple and GCBD have the right to access (...) all user data (including content).”
RSF deplores Apple’s readiness to accommodate China’s authoritarian regime when its cashpile is as big as Finland’s GDP and it made an historic 20-billion-dollar profit in the last quarter. Its desire to please Beijing is all the more remarkable given the determination which it resists pressure from other governments, especially on fiscal transparency.
As Google and Facebook keep trying to get Beijing to lift the ban on their operations in China, the precedent set by Apple is likely to encourage the government to seek more concessions from them, increasing the danger to those who defend reporting freedom and to their contacts and families. China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.