Apple Steps Up Resistance to Government Data Requests

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Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and several other major tech companies plan to modify their previously compliant approach to handling some of the government’s requests for customers’ data. As noted by The Washington Post, tech companies used to obey the government’s instruction to not alert affected customers about its data requests. Although people subjected to typical search and seizure orders are usually informed by the government, criminal investigators routinely asked tech companies not to inform their customers about the seizure of their digital data.

According to the government, informing people under investigation could lead to the destruction of crucial evidence or put witnesses at risk. However, tech companies have grown increasingly reluctant to give the government the benefit of the doubt following the exposure of the NSA’s bulk data collection program by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. As a result, Apple, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are all currently revising their privacy policies in order to reflect their new willingness to inform customers about government data requests.

“Later this month, Apple will update its policies so that in most cases when law enforcement requests personal information about a customer, the customer will receive a notification from Apple,” stated Apple spokesperson Kristin Huguet via The Washington Post. Although Snowden’s revelations highlighted privacy issues for Internet and mobile phone users, it should be noted that the tech companies’ revised privacy policies only apply to standard subpoenas used in criminal investigations and not the national security spying programs exposed by Snowden.

As noted by The Washington Post, data requests approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, national security letters issued by the FBI, and similar national security orders remain unaffected by this policy change. National security investigations typically include a gag order that restricts the amount of information a company is allowed to disclose.

On the other hand, the decision to inform affected customers about other types of government data seizures is done at the discretion of the tech companies. According to industry lawyers cited by The Washington Post, many data requests in those types of cases are dropped when investigators learn that suspects will be informed of the data seizure. While civil liberty watchdogs believe the tech companies’ new policies will help stop unwarranted data requests, the government claims the policies will only hamper or even jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations.

However, it should also be noted that investigators can seek a search warrant for data in cases where they don’t want to immediately inform a suspect of a search. As noted by The Washington Post, search warrants are usually issued under a temporary seal that prevents the suspect from immediately being informed about the search.

Apple’s revised privacy policy follows CEO Tim Cook’s comments about government requests for information on customers in an interview with ABC News earlier this year. “From my point of view, number one, we need to be significantly more transparent,” said Cook. “We need to say, what data is being given, how many people it affects, how many accounts are affected. We need to be clear. And we have a gag order on us right now, so we can’t say those things.”

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