Apple is moving iCloud accounts registered in mainland China to state-run Chinese servers on Wednesday along with the digital keys needed to unlock them, and this has privacy advocates and human rights groups worried.
"The changes being made to iCloud are the latest indication that China's repressive legal environment is making it difficult for Apple to uphold its commitments to user privacy and security," Amnesty International warned in a statement.
“Apple has been criticized for blocking Chinese users' access to the Apple News app and for removing VPN apps from the App Store in China,” the human rights group says. “The changes being made to iCloud are the latest indication that China’s repressive legal environment is making it difficult for Apple to uphold its commitments to user privacy and security.”
Amnesty International adds that domestic law gives the Chinese government virtually unfettered access to user data stored inside China without adequate protection for users’ rights to privacy, freedom of expression or other basic human rights. Chinese police enjoy sweeping discretion and use broad and ambiguously constructed laws and regulations to silence dissent, restrict or censor information and harass and prosecute human rights defenders and others in the name of “national security” and other purported criminal offenses. As a result, Chinese Internet users can face arrest and imprisonment for merely expressing, communicating or accessing information and ideas that the authorities don’t like.
In the past, if Chinese authorities wanted to access Apple's user data, they had to go through an international legal process and comply with U.S. laws on user rights, according to Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which studies the intersection of digital policy and human rights.
"They will no longer have to do so if iCloud and cryptographic keys are located in China's jurisdiction," he told CNNMoney.
Apple says that it did advocate against iCloud being subject to the new law, but was unsuccessful.
"Our choice was to offer iCloud under the new laws or discontinue offering the service," an Apple spokesman told CNNMoney. The company decided to keep iCloud in China, because cutting it off "would result in a bad user experience and less data security and privacy for our Chinese customers," he said.