Apple Slams Government ‘Gag Order’ On Customer Data Requests

Apple's report contains detailed numbers for law enforcement requests from dozens of countries, but companies are forbidden from providing precise numbers that include national security requests.

Apple’s report contains detailed numbers for law enforcement requests from dozens of countries, but companies are forbidden from providing precise numbers that include national security requests.

Last night, Apple provided some very vague details about the number of requests for customer information it received from U.S. law enforcement and national security officials. At the same time, the company made it very clear that it would provide more precise information about the number of these requests, if only the government would let it.

While Apple is able to provide detailed numbers for account requests from officials in countries around the world, it says that federal authorities stateside not only requires that Apple combine national security request statistics with those from general law enforcement agencies, but that it must list this aggregate number in increments of 1,000.

So all Apple can say in its report is that, between Jan. 1 and June 30 of 2013, it received between 1,000 and 2,000 requests for account information and that these requests involved between 2,000 and 3,000 total accounts.

The data is even less helpful when it comes to how many times Apple disclosed data or objected to the request, as all the remaining categories simply state that there were between zero and 1,000 instances for each.

Transparent as pond water after a storm.

Explains Apple:

“At the time of this report, 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. We strongly oppose this gag order, and Apple has made the case for relief from these restrictions in meetings and discussions with the White House, the U.S. Attorney General, congressional leaders, and the courts. Despite our extensive efforts in this area, we do not yet have an agreement that we feel adequately addresses our customers’ right to know how often and under what circumstances we provide data to law enforcement agencies.”

Apple was able to disclose more specific numbers when it comes to what’s referred to as “device requests,” in which law enforcement officials assist in the recovery of lost or stolen iPhones and other items, or when law enforcement has recovered a shipment of stolen devices.

Since these requests don’t fall under the “national security” umbrella, Apple is able to be more specific, revealing that it received 3,542 such queries during the first half of 2013. Since some requests involve multiple devices, Apple says the total number of its products involved in this category of requests totaled 8,605 during this time period.

Of the 3,542 requests, Apple provided some information about the device in 88% (3,110) of cases.

“We believe that our customers have a right to understand how their personal information is handled, and we consider it our responsibility to provide them with the best privacy protections available,” reads the statement from Apple.

Click here to see the whole report from Apple.

This is just the latest public call from Apple and others for the government to allow more transparency in these reports from electronics and Internet businesses. In July, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google, AOL, Yahoo!, and others joined with the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to plead with the White House to ease restrictions on what can be publicly revealed.

“Just as the United States has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights,” read a letter sent by the coalition to the President.