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Apple must warn about China privacy risk, says Amnesty International

The human rights group launches a campaign to pressure Apple after it moved iCloud data controls to China. But Apple says it's been very clear with its customers.

An Amnesty International campaign pressures Apple to improve privacy for Chinese customers of the iCloud data storage and sync service.

An Amnesty International campaign pressures Apple to improve privacy for Chinese customers of the iCloud data storage and sync service.

Amnesty International

Facebook is in the hot seat for undermining privacy, but it's not alone. Amnesty International on Thursday objected to Apple's moving some iCloud data controls to China.

"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," said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director at Amnesty International, in a statement. "Apple needs to be much more transparent about the risks to privacy posed by recent changes to the iCloud service in China."

iCloud is used to store data like photos, contacts, calendar entries, documents, and other files synchronized across Apple devices like MacBooks and iPhones. Such storage and sync services -- along with social networks, email services and photo-sharing sites -- mean much of our most personal data is now stored far away from our own laptops and phones.

In February, Apple started storing encryption keys for iCloud data in China with a third-party company, Guizhou Cloud Big Data, in response to new legal requirements. The decision wasn't made lightly, and Apple was very clear about the change, Apple said in a statement:

"China recently enacted laws requiring that cloud services offered to their citizens be operated by Chinese companies and that Chinese customers' data be stored in the country. While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful. Our choice was to offer iCloud under the new laws or discontinue offering the service. We elected to continue offering iCloud as we felt that discontinuing the service would result in a bad user experience and less data security and privacy for our Chinese customers," Apple said.

"We have been very transparent with our customers about this change. Beginning in early January and over the course of eight weeks, a series of emails and push notifications have informed all of our Chinese customers of the transfer and provided them with maximum flexibility to make changes," Apple added. Customers can opt out of using iCloud, Apple said, but so far "more than 99.9% of iCloud users in China have chosen to continue using the service."

Amnesty International, a nonprofit advocate of human rights, said it's launching a social media campaign to pressure Apple to protect privacy, timing the effort to a visit by Tim Cook to China. It accused Apple of putting profits before people but didn't offer any specific advice about how to handle Chinese legal requirements beyond disclosing risks to customers.

"Chinese domestic law gives the government virtually unrestricted access to user data stored inside China without adequate protection for users' rights to privacy, freedom of expression or other basic human rights," Amnesty International said. "As a result, Chinese internet users can face arrest and imprisonment for merely expressing, communicating or accessing information and ideas the authorities do not approve of."

First published March 22, 2:20 p.m.

Update, 3:24 p.m.: Adds comment from Apple

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