Apple prides itself on privacy protection — but not in China

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

"We found that Apple had made serious compromises in how it was storing that [iCloud] data, including a decision to essentially allow Chinese government employees to physically manage the computer servers that have the data on them, store the keys that unlock the data … on those very servers, and also use different encryption technology in China than anywhere else in the world,” says New York Times reporter Jack Nicas. Photo by Shutterstock.

In the U.S., Apple portrays itself as taking user privacy seriously. Last month, it added a new feature that lets people opt out of tracking by apps like Facebook. But this isn’t the case in China, where much of Apple products are manufactured and sold. To keep doing business there, Apple has had to make a lot of concessions to the Chinese government. 

Jack Nicas and his colleagues at the New York Times looked at Apple’s relationship with the Chinese government. 

Where user data lives and how strongly it’s protected 

Nicas says across the U.S., iCloud information (emails, photos, contacts, calendars, and locations) lives in data centers that Apple runs itself. But in China, the data centers are owned and operated by the local government. Why this storage route? Because of a Chinese law passed years ago.

Apple promised the data was safe in China, Nicas says. “But in our investigation, we found that Apple had made serious compromises in how it was storing that data, including a decision to essentially allow Chinese government employees to physically manage the computer servers that have the data on them, store the keys that unlock the data … on those very servers, and also use different encryption technology in China than anywhere else in the world. Because China would not approve its typical encryption technology.”

What if the government wants to get its hands on that iCloud data? “Apple has made it nearly impossible for itself to stop the government from accessing the data. But we don't have any direct evidence that the government has access to data.” 

Blocking apps in China

Apple is also censoring apps to appease the Chinese government, Nicas says. “It actually has created a system … that is designed to search for apps and remove them or reject them if Apple believes it would upset Chinese government officials, or that it could be against the law.” 

He says roughly 55,000 apps have disappeared from the app store in China but remained in other countries. Many of them pertain to gaming, consuming news, exchanging encrypted messages, helping Democratic protestors organize, and dating among same-sex couples. 

“[They] really are the sort of apps that Apple talks up … that they want to empower on the iPhone. But they are the very apps that they are taking down in China.”

Driven by economics 

“Apple has its back up against the wall in China. It has literally built itself on top of China. It assembles nearly every product in the country. It has built this enormous supply chain that essentially Apple executives have determined is not reproducible in any other country,” explains Nicas. “And it also sells more than $55 billion worth of goods in the country each year now. And it is its number two market after the United States. So Apple needs to stay in China. Apple needs China to run its business. And so it doesn't have much option other than to do what Apple says is ‘obey the law.’”