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Tim Cook Reassures About China's Data Storage

The Chinese government have set a requirement that any information about their citizens should be held within servers inside their borders. While other countries also have similar restrictions, concern has been raised about user privacy considering China’s unpolished history on the subject.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was approached on the topic in an interview with NPR, where he dismissed the idea that there were any privacy concerns. He said that Apple are very clear in their values, but is aware that every country has their own laws. Their approach is to engage with the country, represent themselves, and figure out how they can make change.

Despite Cook’s claim that user privacy is at the heart of the company, storing iCloud data on Chinese servers is a prickly subject. The interviewer suggested that the Chinese government would now have an easier task at accessing this data. Cook was quick to dismiss this.

“That’s a faulty assumption you’re making,” he said. “The same encryption that Apple uses in the United States, and in the United Kingdom, and in France and in the UAE, is the same encryption we use in China. And you know, iMessage is encrypted end-to-end there and encrypted end-to-end here. And they never ask us to break that.”

He goes on to state that just because they’ve asked to store citizens’ data within the country, that doesn’t equate to access.

Cryptographic keys are also required to be kept within the country, but Cook states that the only people who have the key for iMessage are the sender and receiver. It doesn’t matter where the key is stored, it matters if it’s safe, and Cook says Apple themselves don’t have access to the data.

There was a previous incident where the United States government asked Apple to put a back door into their systems, which would allow them access to user data. Apple said no, citing that you can’t put a back door in for specific people – once it’s there, it’s for everyone. According to Cook, no-one else has asked for a back door, though he acknowledged that it could change.

Although the Chinese government may not be accessing the data right now, the NPR interviewer posed that they would probably want to get at it sooner or later. Cook dismissed the assumption, saying that he thinks China have identified cloud services as a strategic marketplace and they want local companies involved in the industry. He views it more as an economic and technological focus, rather than one driven by the desire for unscrupulous access.

That said, Apple have had to remove apps from their store because they included a VPN, which allows people to conceal their communications. Cook acknowledged it was bothersome and not something that the company wanted to do. However, they didn’t have the law on their side in China – the country’s law states that you need a license to operate a VPN, so those without a license got removed.

“The things that law enforcement is generally interested in are messages,” summarised Cook. “Messages for us are end-to-end encrypted. Apple doesn't know what you're saying, we don't have a record of it, we don't store it. The key is with the sender and the receiver.”


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