Apple stores user data in China. What does it mean for cybersecurity?

Apple has begun storing Chinese users' data in servers on mainland China, making Apple the first major US technology company to do so. 

Aly Song/Reuters/File
A woman looks at the screen of her mobile phone in front of an Apple logo outside its store in downtown Shanghai September 10, 2013. Aly Song/Reuters/File

Apple has started storing some Chinese users' data on servers in mainland China operated by the state-run China Telecom Corp. 

Major tech companies, typically wary of China's privacy restrictions, have avoided storing data in China in the past, making Apple the first such tech giant to do so, Reuters reports. 

While this new arrangement raises questions over the safety of users' data, Apple dispelled concerns in a statement that explained that all data stored on China Telecom's servers is encrypted, which means it cannot be accessed by outside parties. 

"Apple takes user security and privacy very seriously... All data stored with our providers is encrypted. China Telecom does not have access to the content," the statement reads. 

For its part, Apple says it has begun data storage in China to improve the speed and efficiency of its iCloud services in China, which lets customers store pictures, documents, e-mails, and other data that can then be accessed from multiple Apple devices, such as Macs, iPhones, and iPads. 

As such, Apple's statement adds that "we have added China Telecom to our list of data center providers to increase bandwidth and improve performance for our customers in mainland China."

A statement posted to the website of the municipal government in the Chinese city of Fuzhuo, and was subsequently taken down, confirmed that "After 15 months of stringent tests and evaluation ... China Telecom has become Apple’s only cloud service provider in China," according to The Wall Street Journal. 

This announcement comes after Chinese hackers in March broke into US government computer networks that contained personal information on federal employees.

That was followed by a series of accusations made by Chinese media against Apple products. Last month, Chinese media accused the Apple iPhone of posing a threat to national security because it could leak important state secrets. Apple refuted these allegations and Chinese media seemed to temper its original accusations. Still, Apple's latest decision to store data in China raises questions as to whether Apple made the move in order to quell Chinese government concerns over its products. 

More recently, Bloomberg News reported that a series of Apple products had been omitted from the Chinese government procurement list, which would have meant no government money could be used to purchase Apple products. However, China denied that this was the case, saying instead that Apple never actually applied to be on this list in the first place and that it's not uncommon for foreign companies to occasionally be excluded from this list. 

And last month Microsoft became embroiled in an antitrust investigation in China. 

These kinds of accusations were stoked by secrets revealed last year by Edward Snowden of the vast extent of the US spying program, which cited cooperation by several US technology companies with the US government. In June of this year, Chinese media singled out Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for their alleged cooperation with the NSA's PRISM program in the past. 

In response, Apple has repeatedly denied creating any way for its products to be spied on by outside government agencies. 

"We have ... never allowed access to our servers. And we never will," Apple has stated. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.