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A big data event hosted in Guiyang, Guizhou in May 28, 2018. (Picture: SCMP)

Apple’s iCloud change in China isn’t a change at all. Here’s why.

Apple’s Chinese partner moves user data from one state-run company to another

This article originally appeared on ABACUS
Apple iCloud data for users in China will be transferred to one of the country’s big three state-run telecom giants, China Telecom, sparking fresh worries over censorship and surveillance.

But there really isn’t much of a change here. Since February, Apple has entrusted its iCloud operations with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD) -- a Chinese firm with known ties to the Chinese government. The move was made to comply with China’s cybersecurity law that came into effect last year.

To that end, Apple has partnered with GCBD to set up a new data center in Guizhou -- an impoverished mountainous province that China now wants to turn into a big data hub.
A big data event hosted in Guiyang, Guizhou in May 28, 2018. (Picture: SCMP)
State-run media Xinhua says the new facility is set to open in 2020. In the meantime, GCBD will be renting servers from China Telecom and other local companies to host Chinese iCloud data.

Essentially, that means if your iCloud account is registered in mainland China -- your photos, email, contacts, calendar and other data synced to iCloud remain in the servers of state-run companies.

Apple has stressed that it -- not its Chinese partner -- controls the encryption keys. The company says it has procedures in place to handle government requests for customer information. It recently revealed that in the first half of 2017 a large number of account requests came from China. Most were said to be linked to investigations into phishing scams and iTunes fraud.
Apple has faced criticism for giving in to Beijing, such as removing VPN apps from the App Store in China and censoring the Taiwan flag emoji in China’s iPhones. The company has said it needs to abide to local laws.

There’s one emoji you can’t see in China

On Weibo, some people seem unhappy that Apple has separate servers for Chinese iCloud users.

One comment said, “Why can’t we access the global internet like other countries? Don’t understand why there has to be a China version. Makes it feel like we’re isolated from other nations.”

Others think that despite Apple’s assertion that it’s the only one with access, the Chinese government can access their data anyway.

“As long as the data is in the country, it makes no difference who manages it,” one user said.

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For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.