Anxiety Over Apple's Planned Data Center in China

Technology

Apple’s plans to open a data center in mainland China were met with apprehension after it was revealed on Wednesday, July 12, that its project partner has ties to the Chinese government.

The data center will be located in the Guizhou province and will be run by Guizhou on the Cloud Big Data.  The partnership complies with a new Chinese law requiring data-storage providers to keep the information of mainland China customers on computers located within the country.

Major technology companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM, have already made similar arrangements to run data centers in mainland China.  

China is Apple’s third-largest market behind North America and Europe, and all signs point to it becoming an even bigger profit center. China currently accounts for about 20 percent of Apple's revenue.

The Guizhou data center will store photos, video, documents, and other personal information uploaded to iCloud accounts by Apple customers who live in mainland China, even when they are traveling outside the country. Backups and other data stored in iCloud accounts by customers outside China will continue to be stored in data centers in the United States and eventually Denmark.

Ajay Arora, CEO of data security specialist Vera, warned that Apple's partnership with a company owned by the Chinese government could increase the chances that authorities could secretly pry their way into iCloud accounts.  "It's like Apple is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse," he said.

For its part, Apple reassured customers in China that the arrangement will not compromise their privacy. "As our customers know, Apple has strong data privacy and security protections in place and no backdoors will be created into any of our systems," the company said in a statement.

Apple also said it will hold to the security keys protecting the data that people routinely back up in iCloud accounts.  But experts believe the data center will make it easier for the Chinese government to retrieve the information through legal demands or other means.

Apple will find it more challenging to resist any order from a Chinese court to give authorities there access to an iCloud account that they want to sift through, predicted Nate Cardozo, a senior staff attorney specializing in privacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. To date, the Chinese government can only make such demands through the US court system, which is a more difficult process to negotiate.

As a remedy, Cardozo recommended that Apple customers in mainland China turn off the iCloud feature on their iPhones and other devices to protect their information from prying eyes.

Data stored on the devices themselves should remain secure as long as they lock them with passwords that only the user knows. Even if the government seizes a device, Apple will not have the keys to unlock data. But with iCloud, Apple does have the keys. The exception is passwords and credit card data synced with iCloud Keychain.

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