The US and the UK have only been planning and talking about it for years, but China has already done it. Unsurprisingly, despite strong criticism and outcry from the US and tech companies, China has passed a law that practically requires technology companies to have backdoors to encrypted systems and to hand the Chinese government keys to those doors should they be required by law. Almost ironically, the US’ arguments against that law sound similar to the ones used by tech companies against the US’ similar proposal.
China does in fact say that it is only doing what other Western countries are trying to do. It is also using the war on terrorism, it’s local terrorism, that is, to justify the new law. That is the very same argument that both the US and the UK try to explain when it says that it wants tech companies to be able to give governments access to encrypted systems, including private smartphones and Internet accounts, in the interests of national security.
The US is concerned that the new law could be used to violate human rights in the country. Given China’s history in that regard, there is a ring of truth there. However, the US’ opposition is hardly completely altruistic. It is also worried that this new law could be used to further China’s corporate espionage. US lawmakers have pointblank accused Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei of being pawns, unwitting or otherwise, in China’s attempts to gain US trade secrets. This new anti-terrorism law would then give them the legal mandate and excuse to do the same with foreign companies operating on Chinese soil.
Again ironically, those are the same concerns surrounding the UK’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, which Apple has recently formally spoken out against. In both cases, government are imposing requirements on non-local companies that not only may be illegal in their home countries but could also be used as a cover to spy on nationals of other countries as well.
China, of course, denies that it will be installing backdoors on services, but nonetheless the law could be a thorny issue for US companies trying to gain ground in the Chinese market. Apple, in particular, doesn’t store users’ encryption keys, which means it will have nothing to hand over to the Chinese government in any eventuality. It, thus, faces the same dilemma as it does in the UK and could be forced to disable encryption of some of its services and devices entirely.