Apple reaffirms stance on privacy amid Trump inquiry revelations
SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP) – Seeking to protect its image as a guardian of privacy, Apple maintains it was…
SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP) – Seeking to protect its image as a privacy guardian, Apple maintains it was taken aback and handcuffed by a Trump administration investigation that led the company to hand over the data telephone calls from two members of the Democratic Congress.
Apple delivered its version of events on Friday in response to reports detailing aggressive attempts by the US Department of Justice to use its legal power to identify leaks linked to an investigation into former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia .
The Justice Department was successful in persuading a federal grand jury to issue a subpoena that resulted in Apple handing over metadata – information that could include general call and text recordings – regarding members of House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both Democrats from California, in 2018. The two lawmakers were key figures on the committee reviewing Trump’s ties to Russia; Schiff is now the chairman of the panel.
Neither Schiff nor Swalwell knew some of the information had been entered until May 5, after a series of gag orders expired, according to the company.
The revelation of Apple’s compliance with the subpoena emerged at a time when the company has stepped up efforts to present privacy as a “fundamental human right” in its marketing campaigns. Apple also upped the level of privacy in April when it rolled out privacy controls on the iPhone as part of an effort to make it harder for companies like Facebook to track people’s online activities for help sell advertisements.
In a statement, Apple said it will continue to fight unwarranted legal requests for personal information and keep customers informed about them.
But in this case, Apple said it was bound by a non-disclosure order signed by a federal judge and said it had no information on the nature of the investigation.
“It would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging into user accounts,” the Cupertino, Calif., Company said. “As per request, Apple has limited the information provided to account subscriber information and has not provided any content such as emails or images.”
Apple also believes other tech companies may have faced similar legal requirements, due to the broad nature of the request it received for “customer or subscriber account information” spanning 73 phone numbers. and 36 e-mail addresses.
It is still unclear how many other companies may have been swept away in the Trump administration’s attempt to track down the leaks.
In a statement, Microsoft admitted to receiving at least one subpoena in 2017 regarding a personal email account. He said he informed the client after the gagging order expired and learned that the person was a Congressional staff member. “We will continue to aggressively seek reform that places reasonable limits on government secrecy in cases like this,” the company said.
Privacy experts were more troubled by U.S. laws that allowed the Department of Justice to secretly obtain subpoenas and keep them secret for years than Apple’s limited compliance with the requirements.
The subpoenas represent “a prime example of government abuse” that tricked Apple, said Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“It’s very difficult to challenge these types of subpoenas, but it’s not impossible,” Butler said. “And if there was one worth challenging, it might be these.”
Apple’s response to the subpoena doesn’t necessarily contradict its stance on the sanctity of privacy, said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. That’s because Apple’s privacy commitments are primarily about protecting its customers from online surveillance.
She thinks the bigger issue is why US law allows a grand jury to issue a subpoena and then prevent Apple from alerting those affected.
“The general secrecy of this is troubling, especially since it appears to be a politically motivated investigation,” Cohn said.
Apple is used to fighting legal demands, especially in 2016 when the Justice Department sought to force Apple to unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the killers during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, in California.
Apple refused to cooperate, saying it would open a digital backdoor that would threaten the security and privacy of all iPhone users. The legal showdown ended when the FBI hired another company to unlock the iPhone connected to the shooting.
“Apple really put its money where its mouth is right now,” Butler said.
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