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Apple opens the books on government data demands, claims privacy is paramount

Apple opens the books on government data demands, claims privacy is paramount

The company says it has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act

Apple on Tuesday provided a report on how much data on users governments have demanded from the company, and sought to set itself apart from Silicon Valley competitors whose businesses are built on amassing personal data.

Apple fielded requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies for details on between 2,000 and 3,000 accounts in the first half of this year, the company said.

The requests generally sought items such as personal information on customers, email, photographs stored in iCloud and other such data stored online, according to Apple. U.S. regulations prohibit Apple from disclosing information in increments finer than 1,000 and it isn't allowed to say what percentage of those requests it rejected or fulfilled.

In making its disclosure, Apple noted that it doesn't have a lot to benefit from collecting and storing vast amounts of information on users.

"Perhaps most important, our business does not depend on collecting personal data," the company said. "We have no interest in amassing personal information about our customers. We protect personal conversations by providing end-to-end encryption over iMessage and FaceTime. We do not store location data, Maps searches, or Siri requests in any identifiable form."

The statement could be seen as something of a swipe at competitors like Google and Facebook, which are increasingly competing to make money from information their customers share via their services, from search requests to social media postings.

In publishing the figures, Apple became the latest major U.S. technology company to provide a partial look at the previously dark world of law enforcement requests for user data.

The issue has come to the forefront in recent months after documents leaked by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden apparently showed U.S. agencies enjoyed deep access into data collected by providers of Internet services.

Apple sought to split the requests into those targeting accounts and those targeting devices like iPhones, iPads and MacBooks. It fielded 3,542 requests seeking information on 8,605 specific devices. Most of those requests were in relation to investigations on lost or stolen devices and didn't target user information.

"We believe it is important to differentiate these categories and report them individually. Device requests and account requests involve very different types of data. Many of the device requests we receive are initiated by our own customers working together with law enforcement. Device requests never include national security-related requests."

One of the most interesting revelations was contained in the final footnote to the document: "Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us."

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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