Apple this week opened its first data center in China, which privacy advocates say will allow the Chinese surveillance state to access users’ text messages, photos, and emails.
The facility, which Apple built in partnership with state-owned firm Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), will house Apple servers in an arrangement that allows the Chinese government easier access to Chinese users’ iCloud data. Xinhua News Agency, a state-run media outlet, reported that the facility opened on Tuesday.
The relationship highlights a troubling pattern of American tech and media companies conceding to Chinese government demands in order to continue doing business in the country. Apple relies heavily on China both as a supply source and as a market for its phones and computers. The tech giant makes most of its products in China, which also accounts for around 20 percent of the company’s revenue.
The New York Times reported this month that Apple has made a series of compromises with the Chinese government in order to continue doing business there. The GCBD data center is one of the concessions. As part of the arrangement, Chinese authorities seeking iCloud data can request it directly from GCBD, bypassing Apple. Apple has defended the arrangement by citing Chinese laws requiring foreign companies to partner with local data firms.
The Guizhou data center has been a source of controversy since it was announced in 2018.
“By handing over its China iCloud service to a local company without sufficient safeguards, the Chinese authorities now have potentially unfettered access to all Apple’s Chinese customers’ iCloud data,” Nicholas Bequelin, a director at Amnesty International, said in 2018. “Apple’s pursuit of profits has left Chinese iCloud users facing huge new privacy risks.”
Apple has also faced criticism that it caters to the Chinese Communist Party by restricting third-party apps available for its users in China. The company came under fire in October 2019 for removing an app that pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong used to track police.
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