Reports indicate that the cryptographic keys required to unlock an Apple iCloud account belonging to Chinese users will no longer be kept in the U.S. but will now be stored in China. This means that Chinese authorities will find it easier to get access to email, text messages and any other relevant data belonging to Apple’s customers in China since they will no longer have to go via the legal system of the United States as was previously the case.
Consequently human rights activists now fear that authorities will now be able to crack down on dissidents much more easily. A little over ten years ago Yahoo was forced to hand over data belonging to users and this led to the arrest and imprisonment of two advocates for democracy. A shareholder of Apple and human rights activist, Jing Zhao, said he envisaged worse human rights abuses compared to the Yahoo case once Apple hands over iCloud data.
After the reports Apple disclosed in a statement that it had no choice but to comply with the Chinese laws which were recently introduced and which demand that cloud services provided to Chinese citizens must be run by Chinese firms. The laws also require that such data be kept in China.
As part of the efforts to comply with the domestic laws Apple has put up a data center in China aimed at local users in partnership with a state-owned company. The data center is located in Guizhou province, a relatively poor region in the southwestern parts of China.
According to Apple the Chinese authorities will not have a ‘backdoor access’ to user data. Only the iPhone maker will have control over the encryption keys. However the iCloud accounts of Chinese customers will bear the name of both Apple and the local partner.
Additionally while the iPhones in China will still enjoy their full security features iCloud accounts in the world’s most populous country will not enjoy that privilege as Chinese authorities will be able to access the information contained in those accounts upon presentation of a legal order. Unlike in the United States where a legal order has to undergo an independent judicial review, Chinese law does not require court approval and the process is carried out by the police exclusively.
“Even very early in a criminal investigation, police have broad powers to collect evidence. [They are] authorized by internal police procedures rather than independent court review, and the public has an obligation to cooperate,” Jeremy Daum, a research fellow at Beijinng’s Paul Tsai China Center of Yale Law School said.