NGO Promoting Freedom of Information Urges Journalists to Quit Apple iCloud China

Reporters Without Borders warns user data will pass to Chinese Communist Party on Feb. 28

Men look at computers in an internet bar in Beijing
Men look at computers in an internet bar in Beijing / Getty Images
February 5, 2018

A non-governmental organization that promotes freedom of information worldwide on Monday urged journalists who use Apple iCloud China to stop doing so by the end of the month, when control of their data will pass to the Chinese government.

Reporters Without Borders, which has consultative status at the United Nations, warned that, on Feb. 28, control of iCloud in China will be transferred to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), a company linked to the government of the southern province of Guizhou.

Apple said the change is being made "to improve the speed and reliability" of iCloud and to "comply with Chinese regulations."

Reporters Without Borders said in a press release that it is alerting "journalists and bloggers using iCloud China to the danger that this migration poses to their security and the security of their sources, and urges them to migrate their account to another geographic region or to close it by Feb. 28."

Apple app users have much of their personal data—such as contacts, photos, files, and email—stored on iCloud.

Last year, Apple withdrew virtual private networks (VPNs)—which allow users to bypass the government’s "Great Firewall" meant to censure and surveil internet use—from the Chinese App Store at Beijing's request. Reporters Without Borders warned at the time that users would find their personal data being shared with the Chinese Communist Party, and said Monday that this "nightmare is unfortunately in the process of being realized."

Apple has explained its decision by citing Chinese regulations and its policy of adhering to local law.

"Apple promises that it will never give governments a backdoor to content, but there is no way of being sure about this," said Cédric Alviani, head of Reporters Without Borders' East Asia bureau. "Knowing the Chinese government's determination and the extent of the means of pressure at its disposal, it will end up getting its way sooner or later, if it hasn't already."

Reporters Without Borders condemned Apple's "readiness to accommodate China's authoritarian regime when its cashpile is as big as Finland’s GDP and it made an historic 20-billion-dollar profit in the last quarter. Its desire to please Beijing is all the more remarkable given the determination which it resists pressure from other governments, especially on fiscal transparency."

U.S. lawmakers have criticized Apple for appeasing Chinese regulators as they seek to impose stricter regulations on internet use.

Reporters Without Borders ranks China 176th out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, ahead of only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and North Korea.