Apple to keep Chinese data in China, privacy picture unclear

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Apple will start migrating the iCloud data of its Chinese users to servers at a data centre in Guizhou. Photo: Apple

Beijing has made it compulsory that all overseas tech firms must store all data from their Chinese users within the nation’s borders, a move that it insists is in line with international practice.

In response, Apple announced last week that it is partnering with a Chinese government-backed data center operator to provide remote iCloud storage to 131 million iPhone users (and millions of iPad and Mac users) in China, starting from February 28.

Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, in China’s southwestern Guizhou province, a relative economic backwater, will be contracted to store all the iCloud data of Apple users in China. Up until now, such data was has been stored in data centers overseas, including in the United States.

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An MOU was signed between Apple and Guizhou-Cloud Big Data last July. Photo: Handout

In accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Apple China and Guizhou’s provincial government in July 2017, each and every Apple ID in China synced to iCloud will have its data mirrored and backed up by racks of servers in Guizhou-Cloud’s gigantic data plants.

Apple has said that by keeping data within the country, Chinese users will enjoy faster, smoother iCloud services on their devices. However this is contrary to Apple’s tradition of managing data operations itself.

The tech giant hasn’t specified whether the historical data of Chinese users stored in servers elsewhere outside China will be kept, or whether it will entertain the Chinese government’s request for a “back door” to the database, or even direct access to personal information. Guizhou-Cloud Big Data is a local government-owned entity, however, which means that all Chinese laws and government powers relating to data safety and access, and to privacy – or lack thereof – are now applicable to all Apple users’ data in China.

Beijing has until now barred foreign investors from setting up cloud storage and cloud computing businesses in the country, citing consumer rights and national security reasons. However, it says it welcomes technical cooperation with overseas partners.

Another question is why the little-known Guizhou?

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Guizhou is in southwestern China. Land, labor and electricity are cheap, and there is a cool climate.

Data centers are typically built in less developed areas with cheap, abundant energy supplies. Guizhou has, accordingly, been spearheading China’s big data push: it has ample land, labor and hydroelectricity, in addition to a Mediterranean-like climate.

Huawei, Alibaba, China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom, among other big names, have already been operating data centers in the province, or have teamed up with Guizhou-Cloud to store data there.

The facility, which houses 30,000 server cabinets to be used by Apple, is part of a US$1 billion joint venture investment in Guizhou and is Apple’s first contracted data center in the country.

Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM had already entered into partnerships with Chinese companies for their China-based cloud services before the law was passed.

It is believed that Apple IDs registered in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, data for which is kept in Apple data centers in Japan and the US, will not be affected by the data migration.

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