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Apple's China iCloud partner to spy on customers' data

Critics urge boycott as tech titan shifts services to state-owned Guizhou firm

Apple's China iCloud partner to spy on customers' data

A Chinese customer looks at his new iPhone X at an Apple store in Beijing on Nov. 3. Apple's sales are still booming on the mainland but critics say the company is caving in to state censors at the expense of customer privacy. (Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Beijing
China

February 9, 2018

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Apple will move its iCloud services in China to a partner company owned by the Chinese government, enabling the state to access users' data.

The U.S. tech giant said it has agreed to hand operations over to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Industry (GBCD) on Feb. 28.

The two have already built a billion-dollar joint data center in the southwestern province.

Apple now plans to build a second data center in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to provide iCloud services for mainland users, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on Feb. 6.

It will be operational in 2020 and fully powered by renewable energy, the report stated.

Apple decided in July to shift its iCloud services to China to comply with new cybersecurity regulations laid out by Beijing.

It also removed virtual private networks (VPNs) and Skype, recently encrypted from a partnership with Signal, from its app store this year. Both VPNs and Skype are banned on the mainland.

The company promised anxious consumers in July there would be no backdoors into the Chinese iCloud but it revealed last month that CGBD will now gain access to customers' data as a result of the transfer.

"Apple's decision compromises the privacy of its customers in China," said Timothy Heath, senior international defense research analyst at RAND Corp.

"Apple devices there will now serve as tools of government surveillance, which means Apple's devices will facilitate the government's efforts to identify anyone who expresses any views contrary to government preference through social media, email or other electronic communication," Heath said.

According to China's national security laws, foreign companies like Apple must share their data with government authorities — and the data used in its devices must be stored in servers in China. 

Critics say the government censors are going too far, with even Chinese netizens starting to turn away from censored web platforms.

Apple is still seeing robust sales in the country of 1.4 billion despite criticism of its treatment of Chinese workers.

In the three months ending November 2017 its market share climbed 5 percent in China despite drop offs in major western markets, according to data from research group Kantar Worldpanel.

Reporter Without Borders has urged all China-based journalists and bloggers to abandon Apple's China iCloud.

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