China and Russia, among other places ruled by strongmen and their political cronies, are demanding that technology companies locate all their data on national soil. The titans of American digital innovation - Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and others - face a difficult choice. They can risk moving the data of millions of customers to a police state, or they can refuse and risk losing millions of customers.
This week, Apple is choosing option A: police state. Starting Wednesday, the data of its iCloud customers in China will be transferred to China, as required by a new law, to be housed in a center operated by a Chinese company. Apple will control the encryption keys but says it will respond to “valid legal requests” from Chinese authorities for the data of individuals. This applies only to the popular iCloud and what Chinese users decide to store there; data on an iPhone itself is encrypted, and users are the only ones who can unlock it.
Previously, a request for the cloud data would have come to the United States and would have been subject to the rigors of U.S. law and due process. China, however, is ruled by the Communist Party, which remains above the law. A vivid glimpse of how the mechanism works is China’s recent campaign to silence and punish human rights lawyers, jailing them for defending people who dared speak their minds openly.
China is also rolling out a nationwide system to monitor the behavior of individuals, including their financial transactions, shopping habits, social media, traffic tickets and unpaid bills, and combining it with ubiquitous surveillance. This is the legal environment that will oversee the iCloud data of Chinese users. Amazon and Microsoft have also established data centers in China. (The chief executive and founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.)
Two years ago, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, refused to help the FBI crack open an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California, terrorists. Cook insisted that it was vital to protect data encryption for privacy, that to give in to the FBI would “make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world, including in the U.S.” We understand that Cook was talking about the iPhone then, and not the cloud, but he was very passionate about the principle of resisting government snooping. “We need to stand tall and stand tall on principle,” he declared.
When it comes to China, however, Apple says that while it didn’t like the new law, it decided to “remain engaged.” This cannot have been an easy decision for Apple or Cook.
Other companies will confront it, too. Of course it would have been painful to Apple’s customers, and to its bottom line, to pull out of China. But obeying “local laws” can mean honoring the whims of mega-snoops and dictators who do not share the values of democracy and free expression. Apple should find that painful, too.