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Apple Reports Major Spike in Government Requests for Information

Posted on October 17, 2017

Who wants information about you? Digital security practices revolve in large part around restricting your data based on the answer to that question. We try to protect our systems so that only those with authorization can access sensitive personal information of all kinds. Most frequently, hackers are the ones we must worry about looking to learn something about us, whether it’s a password or a credit card number. However, it’s important to consider that requests from the government for user information occur on a frequent basis, and these can have an impact on our privacy, too.

Most often these days, the US Government requests companies turn over user information for investigations related to terrorism and other types of serious cases. This request might be through a National Security Letter or a court order related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Search warrants and other legal orders come into play, too. Privacy advocates understand there is a significant potential for abuse, though, and it is why many technology companies make efforts to inform the public on their interactions with the government in this area. Apple publishes a biannual Transparency Report to inform users about the requests it receives.

The latest report, covering the first half of 2017, contains some startling numbers. Though the company can legally speak only in terms of ranges, this year has seen a big uptick in the number of requests for data based on a National Security Order. In the same 2016 period, Apple received between 2,750 and 2,999 orders. So far this year, they have now received between 13,250 and 13,499 orders — roughly four times as many. Overall, the number of requests in which Apple granted information remained at about the same proportion, some 80%. In the rest of the cases, Apple did not identify a sufficient cause for revealing user data.

Why the big increase? It’s hard to say, but it is a concerning development. Apple has demonstrated a strong conviction about protecting user privacy in the past, especially as evidenced during the tense legal standoff with the FBI after San Bernardino. While we do not know the nature of the requests Apple received — many, clearly, serve legitimate purposes — we should continue to look to these transparency reports to understand their impact on our privacy. With Apple acting as stewards for personal info for millions of users, we have a right to know who wants our information.

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