Apple will begin hosting iCloud data inside China despite concerns from human rights activists that authorities could use information to track down dissidents.
The technology giant will open a Chinese data centre next month in order to comply with new laws in the country, which could give authorities far easier access to users’ details.
It is the first time the company has stored cryptographic keys needed to unlock iCloud accounts outside the United States.
Until now, authorities have had to apply through the US legal system to gain access to a Chinese iCloud account.
Apple refused all 176 requests it received from Chinese authorities for information on its users between mid-2013 and mid-2017.
However, law enforcement will now be able to get their hands on text messages, emails and other data stored by Apple through courts in China, according to legal experts.
Human rights activists fear the government will use the new powers to trace dissidents, citing a case from more than a decade ago in which Yahoo handed over data which led to the imprisonment of two democracy advocates.
Jing Zhao, a human rights campaigner and Apple shareholder, said he could envisage worse problems arising from the handing over iCloud data than occurred in the Yahoo case.
In a statement, Apple said it had been forced to comply with recently introduced Chinese laws that require cloud services for Chinese citizens must be operated by Chinese companies.
The tech firm added that while its values did not change in different parts of the world, it was subject to each country’s laws.
“While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” the company said.
Apple has established its data centre for Chinese users in a joint venture with state-owned firm Guizhou - Cloud Big Data, which has close ties to both the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party.
The company says the agreement will not give authorities a “backdoor” into data as its Chinese partner will not control encryption keys and it would only respond to valid legal requests for information.
But China’s legal system lacks the equivalent of a court-approved warrant, which must be obtained by police before they can access a person’s private data.
“Even very early in a criminal investigation, police have broad powers to collect evidence,” said Jeremy Daum, an attorney and research fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing.
“They are authorised by internal police procedures rather than independent court review, and the public has an obligation to cooperate.”
Additional reporting by Reuters