Apple Forced to Host Encryption Keys for Chinese iCloud users on Chinese Servers

2 minute read
| Editorial

Apple is about to make a serious change in how it handles iCloud accounts in China. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Apple will begin hosting encryption keys for Chinese iCloud accounts on servers in China in order to comply with Chinese law.

It’s the first time Apple has hosted those keys outside the U.S., and while Apple says those keys are in a secure location and remain under Apple’s control, it’s a slippery slope. Worse, it’s a slope with ramifications far beyond the Great Firewall of China.

Apple in the Cloud in China

The Journal reported that Apple said it advocated against the Chinese laws. In the end, however, Apple decided that offering iCloud on China’s terms was better than not offering iCloud at all.

The company said it, “felt that discontinuing the [iCloud] service would result in a bad user experience and less data security and privacy for our Chinese customers.”

There are twin dangers for both Apple and its customers. The first is that both the data and the keys to that data are now being held on servers ultimately under the control of the Chinese government. At the very least, that government could be free to beat on copies of that data all day long to see if they can crack it open. Mind you, I imagine Apple is capable of making that possibility as difficult as it can be, but it’s an awful position for Apple to be in.

More practically, however, China will no longer have to go through U.S. courts to compel access to data held on those Chinese servers. There’s no way to slice that as anything other than bad news for privacy in China. At the end of the day, that’s why China forced this change.

The worse danger to the rest of us is that Apple has now set a precedent of compromising its policies at a government’s demand. Other governments will be encouraged to make their own demands, and that could lead even to requiring Apple to give those governments back door access into Apple’s systems. Indeed, Reuters reported that the European Union is looking to for new ways to force tech companies to give European governments access to user data even now.

Hopefully I’m just being an alarmist, and this cost of doing business in China will be just that, a cost, and not some slippery path to hell. Only time time will tell, and at least Apple’s track record says it will do everything it legally can to protect its users and their privacy.

6 Comments Add a comment

  1. skipaq

    I saw that news the other day and my first thought was that Apple’s core principle had been breached by a government not known for civil liberties. The FBI most be drooling over what most likely will come next.

  2. wab95

    Hopefully I’m just being an alarmist, and this cost of doing business in China will be just that, a cost, and not some slippery path to hell. Only time time will tell, and at least Apple’s track record says it will do everything it legally can to protect its users and their privacy.

    Well said, sir. Very nicely summarised.

    We live in interesting times, and Apple join a growing list of major tech (and other industries) players who’ve opted to comply with Chinese law. It’s a double edged sword that can just as easily slice a new one for China. With growing masses of consumers buying into these services, it creates a substantial educated and monied demographic upon which China’s continued economic growth (increasingly shifting to domestic consumption over exports), let alone political stability, depends.

    As they gain critical mass, should that demographic feel hard done by, particularly if more than one of these tech giants vote as a block to withdraw their services in protest to even more draconian government demands (fighting in Chinese courts over domain is a losing proposition) they can make that displeasure felt where it hurts. China is already demonstrating political insecurity by considering extending Xi’s reign into a third and possibly longer term (emperor, anyone?) rather than allowing at least the appearance of elections, despite the single party system.

    Such a societal tremor could destabilise more than just the single party system. It could force open the door of greater openness, privacy and (gasp) individual liberty. That would be about as welcome as holy water and garlic being served at a vampire dinner party.

    The Chinese people know this, and are playing out that long game. I have little doubt that Apple are playing it too.

    • aardman

      I’ve always said that China is heading for some kind of political and social denouement as a result of being the only society in the history of human civilization that aims to have a cosmopolitan, highly-educated, well-traveled, prosperous populace that also has virtually no political rights. The cracks are already forming.

  3. wab95

    Well-put, aardman; certainly not in modern history.

    We have had civilisations with relative affluence but limited civil liberties by modern standards, or those either living as subordinates or next door to brutal, absolutist rulers; all this without taking into account the triple threat of famine, pestilence and war (without rules regarding the treatment on non-combatants).

    That said, China can sustain this for quite awhile, so long as they have an enemy; one seen as an existential threat not only to Chinese sovereignty, however defined, but the aspirations and perceived destiny of the Chinese people. And that is where propagandists, abetted by an able demagogue, earn their keep. This is how the leadership can delay change. And that’s also why it’s smart for Apple to be seen as respecting the authorities and playing by the rules.

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