Apple Details Government Data Requests in Transparency Report

Apple’s new iPad: NSA target.

Apple has released its own Transparency Report, following in the footsteps of Google, Facebook, and other technology giants.

Transparency Reports detail government demands for user information, usually over the previous six months. United States national-security agencies send thousands of requests per year to the world’s biggest tech companies; although the latter is forbidden from publicly mentioning the exact number of requests, the U.S. government generally allows them to display an extremely wide range (i.e., 2,000-3,000), something that Apple’s Transparency Report wastes no time criticizing (PDF).

“The U.S. government does not allow Apple to disclose, except in broad ranges, the number of national security orders, the number of accounts affected by the orders or whether content, such as emails, was disclosed,” the report suggested. “We strongly oppose this gag order, and Apple has made the case for relief from these restrictions.” Despite its executives meeting with the U.S. Attorney General and congressional leaders, however, Apple claims it hasn’t made much progress in lifting those restrictions.

Apple also claims its user-data trove isn’t nearly as voluminous as the ones hosted by Google and Facebook, and so most of its law-enforcement requests are for lost or stolen devices. “These types of requests frequently arise when our customers ask the police to assist them with a lost or stolen iPhone, or when law enforcement has recovered a shipment of stolen devices,” the report added. “Only a fraction of the requests” are for information from iTunes, iCloud, and Game Center accounts.

Between January 1 and June 30 of this year, Apple fielded between 1,000 and 2,000 requests from law enforcement, on between 2,000 and 3,000 user accounts; the company disclosed user data in 0-1,000 of those cases. Other countries’ law enforcement only asked for data on a few dozen requests at most, and Apple was willing to give that information in a significant percentage of cases.

During the same period, Apple received 3,542 requests for data on lost or stolen devices (encompassing 8,605 devices in total); Apple provided at least some data for 3,110 of these requests (or 88 percent of the time). “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act,” the company felt duty-bound to mention near the end of the report. “We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

By comparison, Facebook received between 11,000 and 12,000 requests for user data from the U.S. government in the first six months of 2013. Google, which also receives thousands of data requests per quarter, has made an elaborate show of asking the U.S. government to allow it to release more details about user-data requests, something the Feds have so far denied.

It’s easy to see why tech companies are making such a big deal of Transparency Reports: In this post-Snowden era, where the populace is suddenly aware of the NSA’s attempts to monitor broad swaths of the Internet, tech companies need to vigorously assert their willingness to push back against government intrusion if they want to maintain user loyalty, and all the profits that go along with that.

 

Image: Apple

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