By Laignee Barron
March 22, 2018

Amnesty International says Apple Inc is creating the Orwellian future it once envisioned by potentially opening up the data of Chinese iCloud users to Beijing’s scrutiny.

Texts, photos, emails, contacts and any other information stored on Apple’s cloud service in China could now be easily accessed by the government, Amnesty claims, warning of possible arrests or imprisonment as rights to privacy and free speech are infringed upon.

Apple famously positioned itself as a champion of free expression in its iconic “1984” advertisement.

According to an Amnesty blog post, to comply with new legislation in China, Apple, as of last month, began hosting Chinese users’ accounts on servers operated by a Chinese company, with the encryption keys managed by the local provider. The rights group says that previously, in order to view a Chinese account, Beijing would have had to go through the U.S. legal system. Now, communist officials will be able to go through China’s compliant courts.

“Apple’s pursuit of profits has left Chinese iCloud users facing huge new privacy risks,” Amnesty’s East Asia Director Nicholas Bequelin alleged in a statement. Apple reported record earnings of $17.9 billion in Greater China in the last quarter, up from US$16.2 billion in the same period a year ago.

According to some estimates, mainland China is the largest market of iPhone users.

“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. Apple knows it, yet has not warned its customers in China of the risks,” Bequelin said.

The human rights group this week launched a social media campaign targeting Apple, just in time to coincide with Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook’s visit to Beijing.

In a statement to Reuters, Apple said it had to comply with the new Chinese laws, and ultimately decided it was better to allow local hosting of the iCloud than to discontinue the service, which it argued could lead to an even greater erosion of users’ data privacy and security.

“While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” it said.

Write to Laignee Barron at Laignee.Barron@time.com.

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