On the outskirts of Guiyang, a city in a poor, mountainous province in south-western China, men in hard hats recently put the finishing touches on a white building a quarter-mile long with few windows and a tall surrounding wall. There was little sign of its purpose, apart from the flags of Apple and China flying out front, side by side.
Inside, Apple was preparing to store the personal data of its Chinese customers on computer servers run by a state-owned Chinese firm. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has said the data is safe. But at the data center in Guiyang, which Apple hoped would be completed this month, and another in the Inner Mongolia region, Apple has largely ceded control to the Chinese government. Chinese state employees physically manage the computers. Apple abandoned the encryption technology it used elsewhere after China would not allow it. And the digital keys that unlock information on those computers are stored in the data centers, they’ve meant to secure.
Internal Apple documents, interviews with 17 current and former Apple employees and four security experts, and new filings made in a court case in the United States last month provide rare insight into the compromises Mr. Cook has made to do business in China. They offer an extensive inside look – many aspects of which have never been reported before – at how Apple has given in to escalating demands from the Chinese authorities. Two decades ago, as Apple’s operations chief, Mr. Cook spearheaded the company’s entrance into China, a move that helped make Apple the most valuable company in the world and made him the heir apparent to Steve Jobs and a billionaire. Apple now assembles nearly all of its products and earns a fifth of its revenue in the China region. But just as Mr. Cook figured out how to make China work for Apple, China is making Apple work for the Chinese government.
Mr. Cook often talks about Apple’s commitment to civil liberties and privacy. But to stay on the right side of Chinese regulators, his company has put the data of its Chinese customers at risk and has aided the government censorship in the Chinese version of its App Store. After Chinese employees complained, it even dropped the “Designed by Apple in California” slogan from the backs of iPhones.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is increasing his demands on Western companies, and Mr. Cook has resisted those demands on a number of occasions. But he ultimately approved the plans to store customer data on Chinese servers and to aggressively censor apps. Apple in our opinion has become more and more a cog in the censorship machine that presents a government-controlled version of the internet. If we look at the behavior of the Chinese government, we don’t see any resistance from Apple – no history of standing up for the principles that Apple claims to be attached to.
While both the Trump and Biden administrations have taken a tougher line toward China, Apple’s courtship of the Chinese government shows a disconnect between politicians in Washington and America’s wealthiest company. Behind the scenes, Apple has constructed a bureaucracy that has become such a powerful tool in China’s vast censorship operation. It proactively censors its Chinese App Store, relying on software and employees to flag and block apps that Apple managers worry could run afoul of Chinese officials, according to interviews and court documents. An analysis found that tens of thousands of apps have disappeared from Apple’s Chinese App Store over the past several years, more than previously known, including foreign news outlets, gay dating services and encrypted messaging apps. It also blocked tools for organizing pro-democracy protests and skirting internet restrictions, as wells as apps about the Dalai Lama. And in its data centers, Apple’s compromises have made it nearly impossible for the company to stop the Chinese government from gaining access to the emails, photos, documents, contacts and locations of millions of Chinese residents.
The Chinese government regularly demands data from Chinese companies, often for law-enforcement investigations. Chinese law requires the companies to comply. In Apple’s case, as it seems, such demands become obsolete in the future, as the Chinese government has permanent full access to all of Apple’s Chinese users.
United States law has long prohibited American companies from turning over data to Chinese law enforcement. But Apple and the Chinese government have made an unusual arrangement to get around American laws. In China, Apple has ceded legal ownership of its customers’ data to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, or GCBD, a company owned by the government of Guizhou Province, whose capital is Guiyang. Apple recently required its Chinese customers to accept new iCloud terms and conditions that list GCBD as the service provider and Apple as “an additional party”. Apple told customers the change was to “improve iCloud services in China mainland and comply with Chinese regulations”. The terms and conditions included a new provision that does not appear in other countries: “Apple and GCBD will have access to all data that you store on this service” and can share that data “between each other under applicable law”. Under this new setup, the Chinese authorities ask GCBD – not Apple – for Apple customers data.
On Chinese iPhones, Apple forbids apps about the Dalai Lama while hosting those from the Chinese paramilitary group accused of detaining and abusing Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group in China. Apple has also helped China spread its view of the world. Chinese iPhones censor the emoji of the Taiwanese flag, and their maps suggest that Taiwan is part of China. For a time, simply typing the word “Taiwan” could make an iPhone crash.
Apple resisted an order from the Chinese government in 2012 to remove ‘The Times’ apps. But five years later, it ultimately did. Mr. Cook approved the decision.
In India, new rules in our opinion pave another way for “a new form of mass surveillance”. The potential for the misuse of government-sanctioned backdoors in encryption in our opinion must not be overlooked. A backdoor for one is often a backdoor for all, whether a government agency, a hacker or a malicious nation. In India Facebook-owned WhatsApp is currently suing the government over new “traceability” regulations that would force it to break end-to-end encryption.
It looks to us as the time has come for a new era of smartphones and tablets that protect privacy rights of users and our democracy.