Like Microsoft, Apple Reserves Right to Read Customers’ Emails

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Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is still dealing with the fallout over its decision to snoop in the Hotmail inbox of a reporter who had leaked several early screenshots of Windows 8. Although Microsoft’s investigation allowed it to identify the employee who leaked the information, the company is now under fire for invading the privacy of one of its email accountholders. However, a statement from Microsoft deputy general counsel John Frank made it clear that the company was acting within its rights under its terms of service. “While Microsoft’s terms of service make clear our permission for this type of review, this happens only in the most exceptional circumstances,” wrote Frank in a company blog post.

Although Microsoft has been widely criticized by privacy advocates over its decision to access a reporter’s email account, a recent investigation by The Guardian revealed that Microsoft isn’t the only tech company that reserves the right to read users’ emails. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and several other major tech companies have similarly worded terms of service that also give those companies the same privilege.

According to Apple’s iCloud Terms and Conditions, “Apple may, without liability to you, access, use, preserve and/or disclose your Account information and Content to law enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or a third party, as Apple believes is reasonably necessary or appropriate, if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, disclosure, or preservation is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process or request; (b) enforce this Agreement, including investigation of any potential violation thereof; (c) detect, prevent or otherwise address security, fraud or technical issues; or (d) protect the rights, property or safety of Apple, its users, a third party, or the public as required or permitted by law.”

As noted by The Guardian, this clause is very similar to the clause that Microsoft used to justify snooping in the reporter’s Hotmail account. According to Microsoft’s Services Agreement, “Microsoft may access, disclose, or preserve information associated with your use of the services, including (without limitation) your personal information and content, or information that Microsoft acquires about you through your use of the services (such as IP address or other third-party information) when Microsoft forms a good faith belief that doing so is necessary (a) to comply with applicable law or to respond to legal process from competent authorities; (b) to enforce this agreement or protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers; or (c) to help prevent a loss of life or serious physical injury to anyone.”

Although complying with a legal court order is a no-brainer, it is the clause that allows these companies to read a user’s email to “protect the rights or property” of the company that is the most troubling for privacy advocates. Apple is known for being extremely vigilant about protecting the secrecy of its upcoming products and the similarity between Apple’s terms of service and Microsoft’s inevitably makes users wonder if their accounts could also be scrutinized without a court order. However, it should be noted that there is no evidence that Apple has ever exercised its right to read users’ emails over a product leak. As noted by The Guardian, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) also have similar clauses in their terms of service.

While unnamed insider sources from Apple will sometimes share general information about an upcoming product or service, the most egregious leaks appear to originate from Apple’s overseas supply chain. For example, well-connected Apple leaker Sonny Dickson was able to acquire casings for the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C before the smartphones were released last year.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter (@ArnoldEtan_WSCS)

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