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Apple Officially Moves its Chinese iCloud Operations and Encryption Keys to China

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While everything is stable with the European Apple audience and the iOS 11 install rates continue to grow, some resonant news from China as here. Apple officially transfers all Chinese iCloud operations as well as encryption keys to China. Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), a local organization regulated by the Chinese government and close to Chinese Communist Party, will host the encryption keys now. Chinese users with iCloud accounts will have a choice whether to delete their account and clear all the files or to have it handed over and hosted by GCBD. Apple announced that no accounts will be transferred without users’ agreement.

When this news were first published, Chinese activists, non-profit organizations, lawyers, and security experts became concerned with a security question. Most of them are bothered that Chinese government may force Apple to follow various requests to access Chinese iCloud.

However, Apple said that Guizhou-Cloud Big Data’s close connection to the government is actually an advantage. As Apple has written in the emails to Chinese users a month ago, this decision enables the company to improve iCloud’s reliability and speed complying with Chinese regulations.

This is the latest step in the Apple’s strategy of sufferance towards Chinese government. Last summer, Apple removed VPN applications from the App Store that helped users to avoid censorship and enjoy free access to the Internet. Moreover, Apple’s lawyers added a paragraph in the Chinese terms of use that proclaim both Guizhou-Cloud Big Data and Apple have the right to access all user information. Apple avoids commenting this nuance.

Jeremy Daum, a lawyer from Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing, reported that the search warrants in China are not issued by any independent court. Instead, they pass through an internal police review and are regulated only by the police. Also, he says that the police maintains the privacy of users’ information and commercial secrets, therefore there is no problem in the act of collecting and viewing information by them.

On the other hand, there are no Chinese laws that are supposed to protect user’s confidentiality. Two years ago, China adopted a law, which allowed the police to force companies to ignore any security or encryption tools to reach users’ personal information. The National People’s Congress refused to comment.

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The Cybersecurity Law adopted in 2017 was something that made Apple cooperate with the new data center. Apple supporters say that this decision is just a high price of doing business in China. Other large companies like Aliexpress or Tencent host their information in China, too.

Some experts claim that Chinese iCloud will be more convenient and fast since it doesn’t have to pass the firewall. Therefore, Chinese users will enjoy the advantage of fast download and stable connection. Surely, the positive effects of this decision do exist, however, users still are concerned and worried that their personal information may be tracked and explored by the government.

According to Global Times, Chinese government won’t ruin users’ confidentiality but ensure the safety of their personal information. The article’s author Xiao Xin reports that the Chinese institutions and businesses don’t have to worry about their data being stored somewhere overseas and have a chance to improve their experience with the iCloud.

Charlie Smith, known as a co-founder of such anti-censorship resources as FreeWeibo.com and GreatFire.org says that the opinion of the Global Times might be right, but there are more important issues here. He says that there are no doubts Chinese regulators can keep personal information confidential. Baidu keeps users’ data safe from the NSA, but the problem is that the Chinese government will access the information any time they want to. And the reasons for them to do so might be too broad.

As known, iCloud uses end-to-end encryption and therefore outside hacking is almost impossible. However, the real issue is a full governmental access that becomes possible due to the partnership Apple is about to make. As the Apple’s reports claim, they were used to share some data with the government before, but that was only transactional and subscriber data, not personal information like photos, videos or e-mails.

Most users in China won’t even notice the change. At the same time, Apple tells the users that they guarantee their privacy no matter what. They ensure that no backdoors will be created in their systems of security. Privacy will still be privacy until the Chinese government wants to have a look at users’ personal information with or without reasons.