Apple acknowledges thousands of NSA data requests

It joins Microsoft and Facebook in spilling the details. But because of government gag orders, that's not the whole story.

By Jason Notte Jun 17, 2013 2:08PM
The Apple Inc. logo is displayed on the back of the new MacBook Pro David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesTech companies apparently have emerged from the denial stage of grief over the National Security Agency's Prism spying program and sprinted directly to  acceptance.


After issuing blanket denials about the NSA's surveillance program, these companies have begun pointing users toward information about government requests for their data and disclosing the number of those requests more directly. After initially denying involvement with the NSA program, Apple (AAPL) revealed Sunday that it received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement for customer data during the six-month period that ended in May.


Apple said between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices were targeted by data requests in that time from federal, state and local authorities. The requests included both criminal investigations and national security matters.


Apple's revelation follows similar announcements from Facebook (FB) and Microsoft (MSFT),  which owns and publishes moneyNOW, an MSN Money site. On Friday, each disclosed the total number of legal orders it received for user data, including ones from the NSA and from state, local and federal police performing criminal investigations.


Facebook revealed it received requests for information on 18,000 accounts over a six-month period, according to CNET, while Microsoft's total was about 31,000 accounts. With that burden off their chests, the tech companies can get down to the ever-important business of framing the argument for their involvement in these programs and assuring users that privacy is of utmost concern.


After the Washington Post and The Guardian published their accounts of the NSA program, The Guardian reported that Google (GOOG) and Facebook wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for permission to disclose requests made through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Those requests are currently covered by a gag order that keeps them out of "transparency reports" issued so far by Microsoft, Twitter, Google and other tech companies. Microsoft and Twitter, according to the Guardian, joined Google and Facebook in making the same request for increased transparency.


Apple issued a statement saying the most common requests for its information come "from police investigating robberies and other crimes, searching for missing children, trying to locate a patient with Alzheimer's disease, or hoping to prevent a suicide."


Apple also denied that it offers government agencies direct access to its servers, and it added that any government agency requesting customer content must get a court order. It argued that its iMessage text-messaging service and FaceTime video chats are encrypted beyond government reach and that it doesn't store customers' locations or Siri requests.


That must be a big relief for Apple and its tech colleagues. For the thousands of people who have their devices and information tracked in the meantime, probably not so much.


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