Apple Lifts Veil of Secrecy in Transparency Report
Apple typically is not inclined to expose its internal activities to public scrutiny. That makes its willingness to be transparent about how it handles customer data remarkable. "I think this shows that transparency reports are now industry standard," said EFF attorney Nate Cardozo. "If you want to be taken seriously as a tech company that respects its users, you do need a transparency report."
Apple has followed the lead of other tech giants by publishing its first transparency report, highlighting the number of government requests it has received for data the company holds on certain customers. However, it could not reveal specific numbers for U.S. law enforcement requests due to government regulations.
Other leading technology companies, including Facebook, Yahoo and Google, issued similar transparency reports soon after the initial wave of National Security Agency surveillance allegations pointed a finger at them -- and Apple -- back in June. Twitter has voluntarily issued biannual reports since July 2012.
Apple's report covers the period from Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year. The company previously provided broad numbers of the law enforcement requests it received, but this is the first time it has broken down the figures by country and specified the number of times it handed over data.
"Apple has almost an obsessive secrecy culture. They don't have a public policy blog. They have a much smaller presence in Washington than any other tech company their size. The culture of secrecy at Apple doesn't tend to these sorts of public reports," Nate Cardozo, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told MacNewsWorld.
"I think this shows that transparency reports are now industry standard," he added. "If you want to be taken seriously as a tech company that respects its users, you do need a transparency report."
Apple is allowed to disclose only the broad range of numbers of U.S. national security orders, accounts affected by said orders, and how often content was provided to government officials, it notes in its report.
It is one of several technology companies fighting for greater transparency regarding complete, accurate numbers of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) requests and National Security Letters.
"One of the things that is apparent from this report is that the U.S. government needs to change its policy and allow tech companies to give truthful and complete information. The U.S. is the only country listed on Apple's report that doesn't allow exact numbers to be printed," Cardozo pointed out.
"I think Apple's report shows, just as the rest of the tech companies' reports show, that the U.S. government's policy is absurd and needs to change," he said.
Thousands of Requests
What Apple was able to reveal is that it has received between 1,000 and 2,000 requests from U.S. government agencies for information on 2,000 to 3,000 accounts. Apple disclosed information on fewer than 1,000 accounts. U.S. officials made far more requests than any other country.
It granted at least some information in 37 percent of 127 account requests by UK law enforcement.
"On one hand, I think Apple is concerned about the privacy of its customers, and that goes in Apple's favor," telecom analyst Jeff Kagan told MacNewsWorld. "On the other hand, it goes to show there's no safe haven. The user just cannot assume they're private no matter who they're customers of. There's no such thing as privacy anymore. Privacy has been slipping through our fingers for decades."
Apple receives a large number of government requests for information related to specific devices that may have been lost or stolen. Those requests typically arise when customers ask police for help in recovering iPhones or iPads, or when officials have recovered shipments of stolen items.
The company provided at least some information to U.S. law enforcement on 3,110 devices. Officials had made 3,542 requests for details on 8,605 devices.
Apple disclosed information on 1,856 devices in Germany, 853 in Singapore, 689 in the UK, and 695 in Australia.
Apple noted that in the instances when it did not hand over data, the company might have objected to a request for legal reasons, or it may not have found relevant information on devices or user accounts in its records. Apple did not respond to our request to comment for this story.
"I think it certainly is a PR move, but it's also genuine," the EFF's Cardozo said. "I think Apple really does believe that its users have a right to know when governments around the world come looking for their information. the fact that this is a PR move is not inconsistent with the fact that it's also a genuine move towards transparency."