News & Politics

Report: Apple Allows Chinese Communist Party Access to User Data in the Middle Kingdom

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

According to a damning report from The New York Times, Apple has undermined the privacy of its customers’ data in China by granting the Chinese Communist Party access. The company has also deleted tens of thousands of apps from its app store in China, specifically censoring a major critic of the Communist Party. The Times also claimed that Apple skirted U.S. law by moving Chinese customers’ data to China.

Apple has long sermonized about the importance of data privacy.

“Privacy means peace of mind, it means security, and it means you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to your own data,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, said in a press release in January 2021. “Our goal is to create technology that keeps people’s information safe and protected. We believe privacy is a fundamental human right, and our teams work every day to embed it in everything we make.”

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Yet, according to The New York Times, Apple has violated the privacy of its Chinese customers and enabled the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state efforts.

In response to a 2017 Chinese law, Apple agreed to move its Chinese customers’ data to China and onto computers owned and run by a Chinese government-owned company. According to the Times, “Chinese government workers physically control and operate the data center.”

Apple agreed to store the digital keys that unlock the data in those data centers, and the company abandoned the encryption technology it uses in other data centers because China banned it.

Security experts and Apple engineers told the Times that Apple’s concessions “would make it nearly impossible for the company to stop Chinese authorities from gaining access to the emails, photos, contacts, calendars and location data of Apple’s Chinese customers.”

Apple insisted that it had retained control of the data keys and claimed it was using more advanced encryption technology in China than in other countries. “We have never compromised the security of our users or their data in China or anywhere we operate,” the company told the Times.

Yet the Times also reported that Apple shares customer data with the Chinese government. U.S. law prohibits Apple from turning data over to Chinese authorities, but by moving the data to China, Apple created a legal arrangement with the Chinese government that skirts U.S. law.

Apple transferred legal ownership of its Chinese customers’ iCloud data to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), a company that the Guizhou provincial government owns, the Times reported. Apple and GCBD also inserted new language into the Chinese iCloud terms and conditions that granted the companies “access to all data that you [the user] store on this service” and allowed the companies to share the data with each other.

Chinese authorities no longer need to go to Apple to acquire Apple customer data; they go to GCBD. Before the arrangement, Apple said it had never provided any customer’s iCloud data to the Chinese Communist Party. After the arrangement, Apple has provided data from an undisclosed number of accounts in nine separate cases, the company said.

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According to the Times, Apple has created an internal bureaucracy that rejects or removes apps that may run afoul of Chinese rules. The company trains its app reviewers and uses special software to inspect apps, searching for any mention of topics that Apple has deemed off-limits in China, such as Tiananment Square, the anti-CCP religious group Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, and independence for Tibet and Taiwan.

Apple has acknowledged that it removes apps in China to comply with local laws.

Along these lines, Apple has removed apps from Gun Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who went public with claims of corruption inside the Chinese Communist Party. In 2018, CCP internet regulators ordered Apple to reject one of Guo’s apps, and Apple responded by placing the billionaire on the company’s “China sensitives list.” The company’s software scans apps for mentions of Guo and Apple trains app reviewers to reject his apps.

Even so, a Guo app slipped past Apple’s defenses and Chinese officials demanded answers from the tech company. Apple’s app review chief sent colleagues an email at 2:32 a.m.

“This app and any Guo Wengui app cannot be on the China store,” the email read. Apple investigated the incident and fired the app reviewer who approved the app. The company did not dispute firing the reviewer, but said it did so for poor performance. Apple said it removed the app because it was illegal.

Since 2017, roughly 55,000 active apps have disappeared from Apple’s App Store in China, and most of them remain available in other countries, the Times reported. In China, app games must gain approval from regulators, and more than 35,000 of the disappeared apps were games. The remaining 20,000 included foreign news outlets, gay dating services, and encrypted messaging apps.

Apple also blocked tools for organizing pro-democracy protests and for skirting internet restrictions, along with apps about the Dalai Lama.

The company disputed The Times‘s figures, claiming that some developers removed their own apps.

PJ Media reached out to Apple for a separate comment on the claims, and the company did not respond by press time.

The Chinese Communist Party has become notorious for oppressing its own people and threatening other parts of the world.

The Chinese Communist Party maintains a powerful surveillance state, including facial recognition and a government-monitored “social credit score” that restricts citizens’ freedom of movement if they are deemed “untrustworthy.”

The CCP has rounded up about 1 million Muslim Uyghurs and others in what China defends as de-radicalization camps, and human rights activists have claimed that inmates are sentenced there with little due process. Detainees are compelled to denounce their religion, language, and culture and to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. According to an Associated Press investigation, Uyghur women are forced to use birth control or undergo involuntary sterilizations.

The CCP has also cracked down on China’s Christians. Local officials have even barged into Christians’ houses, taking down crosses and posters of Jesus and replacing them with portraits of Xi and Mao.

The CCP has also sparked a border war with India, and imposed “direct authoritarian rule” over Hong Kong, arguably violating the treaty by which China gained limited control over Hong Kong from Britain.

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The CCP also engaged in nefarious malfeasance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The CCP lied to cover up the pandemic early on, and waited until after 5 million people had left Wuhan before locking down the city. The party destroyed early samples of the virus, silenced doctors who tried to warn the world about it, pressured the WHO into lying about the pandemic, requested personal protective equipment (PPE) from across the world and then extorted foreign countries when they made the same request. The CCP even prevented U.S. companies from shipping their medical gear back home.

Apple should not be enabling this horrendous regime.