Chinese iCloud Data Is Now Being Stored on State-Run Servers

Apple Store China Credit: Reuters
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Locally stored iCloud data in China is now being moved to servers owned by a state-run telecommunications firm, according to a new report.

What’s Happening?

Data, which includes text messages, emails and other information stored in iCloud, will now be stored by a division of China Telecom — a telecom firm owned and operated by the national Chinese government.

China Telecom’s Tianyi cloud storage business division has agreed to a deal to take over for Apple’s original iCloud China partner, Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). GCBD, which is run by the Guizhou provincial government, has been storing the iCloud data since Apple migrated it over earlier this year.

The move was first reported by China Telecom itself, which announced the change in a WeChat post this week. Apple confirmed it to TechCrunch but noted that China Telecom wagered a deal with GCBD directly — not Apple.

Apple first made the change to locally stored data to comply with a new set of Chinese cybersecurity regulations, which require foreign firms to store user data locally. The laws also required that iCloud encryption keys be stored in China as well.

While Apple said it would retain control of its encryption keys during the migration to GCBD servers, the stricter cybersecurity laws required those to be stored in China, too. It’s not clear whether Apple will continue controlling those keys now that the data is being moved to another server provider.

Why Is This Move Unfavorable?

One of the chief concerns is that the move has given Chinese authorities broader access to users’ private data. Previously, all iCloud user data was stored in the U.S.

That meant Chinese officials needed to go through the U.S. legal system to get access to that data. Now, the only things protecting consumers in China from government surveillance are Chinese courts and state-affiliated entities.

Because of that, Apple has taken flack for the switch, particularly from human rights and privacy advocates. Back in March, Amnesty International strongly condemned the move — equating it to a “betrayal” of Apple’s Chinese customers.

In a blistering attack on Apple, Amnesty International accused the company of “recklessly making (Chinese users’) personal data vulnerable to the arbitrary scrutiny of the Chinese government.”

“By handing over its China iCloud service to a local company without sufficient safeguards, the Chinese authorities now have potentially unfettered access to all Apple’s Chinese customers’ iCloud data,” Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin said.

For its part, Apple said it “advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws,” but was ultimately unsuccessful. The company said it had two choices: migrate its iCloud data to local servers, or discontinue iCloud in China entirely.

Privacy-minded iCloud users in China are left with few options. But TechCrunch notes that locals can “opt out” of having their data on state-run servers by selecting another country for their iCloud accounts.

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