Apple is seeking to protect its image as a custodian of personal privacy it was blinded to by a Trump administration investigation into maintaining it, which resulted in the company handing over phone data from two Democratic congressmen.
San Ramon, Calif. Seeking to protect its image as a custodian of personal privacy, Apple says it was blindsided and handcuffed by a Trump administration investigation that resulted in the company collecting phone data from two Democratic congressmen handed over.
The Justice Department was able to persuade a federal grand jury to issue a subpoena, which culminated in Apple altering the metadata — information that can include general records of calls and texts — to House Intelligence Committee members Adam. Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats, during 2018. Both lawmakers were key figures on the committee investigating Trump’s ties with Russia; Schiff is now the chairman of the panel.
According to the company, neither Schiff nor Swellwell were aware that some of the information had been confiscated until May 5, after a series of gag orders had ended.
The revelation of Apple’s compliance with the subpoena comes at a time when the company is ramping up efforts to frame privacy as a “fundamental human right” in its marketing campaigns. Apple also stepped up privacy controls in April when it introduced privacy controls to the iPhone as part of an effort to make it more difficult to track people’s online activities to help them sell ads to companies like Facebook.
In a statement, Apple stressed that it will continue to fight unreasonable legal demands for personal information and keep customers informed about them.
But in this instance, Apple said it was constrained by a nondisclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge and said it had no knowledge of the nature of the investigation.
The Cupertino, Calif., company said, “It would have been virtually impossible for Apple to decipher the intent of the desired information through users’ accounts.” “In line with the request, Apple limits the information provided to customers’ information and does not provide any material such as emails or images.”
Apple also believes other technology companies may face similar legal demands, based on the broader nature of the received request for “customer or customer account information” spread across 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses. .
It’s not clear how many other companies may have been swept up in the Trump administration’s effort to track down the leakers.
In a statement, Microsoft acknowledged having received at least one subpoena related to an individual email account in 2017. It said it notified the customer after the gag order was terminated and learned that the person was a Congressional staff member. “We will continue to aggressively pursue reforms that impose reasonable limits on government privacy in such matters,” the company said.
Privacy experts were more upset by US laws that allowed the Justice Department to secretly obtain summons and then keep them under wraps for years than limited compliance with Apple’s demands.
Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the subpoenas represented “a quintessential example of government misconduct” that implicated Apple.
“It is very difficult to challenge this type of summons, but it is not impossible,” Butler said. “And if ever there was anyone worth challenging, it could be this one.”
Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said Apple’s response to the summons does not contradict its stance on the sanctity of personal privacy. That’s because Apple’s privacy commitments mostly revolve around protecting its customers from online surveillance.
She thinks the bigger issue is why US law allows a grand jury to issue a subpoena and then prevents Apple from alerting those affected.
“The overall secrecy of this is disturbing, especially since it appears to be all a politically motivated investigation,” Cohn said.
Apple has a history of fighting legal requests, most notably in 2016 when the Justice Department sought to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the killers in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. was.
Apple declined to cooperate, arguing that it would open a digital backdoor that would threaten the security and privacy of all iPhone users. The legal exposure ended when the FBI hired another firm to unlock the iPhone linked to the shooting.
“Apple really put its money where its mouth is at the time,” Butler said.