Blog Post

Better late than never: Apple’s reluctant entry to the surveillance debate and what it means

Big U.S. tech companies are unhappy to be at the center of an ongoing controversy over privacy and spying, in which governments have been using the companies as ciphers to monitor the communications of their citizens.

Google(s goog) has been calling attention to the issue for years by publishing so-called “transparency reports” that show how often governments demand user data and why. Other companies, including Yahoo(s yhoo) and Microsoft(s msft), have followed suit and a number of them are in a heated legal battle before America’s secret spy court.

Until now, Apple(s aapl) has stayed out of it. But on Monday, the iPhone maker published an unprecedented report decrying the government’s use of gag orders that prevent companies from disclosing the number of security security requests they receive. Apple also revealed that it’s filed briefs in support of various Constitutional court challenges, and published two charts showing information requests.

While civil libertarians will welcome Apple’s arrival to the surveillance debate, the company’s contribution feels half-hearted and politicized. This is most apparent in repeated remarks that Apple’s business does not depend on collecting personal data — an obvious dig at Google. (It’s also worth noting that Apple, unlike others, declined to call its document a “transparency report”).

Apple also made curious choices in what published, including a chart about “device requests.” These set of figures primarily represent customer requests about stolen iPhones and iPads, and is largely a red herring because such information is not that relevant to the debate over surveillance. To its credit, though, Apple does disclose how many “account requests” it receives (information that can cover users’ photos, email and more) even though it is not, as it states, as data-reliant as some of its tech rivals.

Finally, Apple makes the observation that “dialogue and advocacy are the most productive way to bring about a change in these policies, rather than filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government” — which comes across as a snide dig against the companies (including Google and Microsoft) that have filed important First Amendment legal challenges over the right to discuss surveillance.

The bottom line is that Apple, a secretive company, has taken an unprecedented and important stance on surveillance; it’s too bad that it had to dilute that stance with petty tech-industry politics (and, in this, it’s hardly the only one).

Here’s the report with some key stuff underlined:

Apple gov’t request report.pdf

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5 Responses to “Better late than never: Apple’s reluctant entry to the surveillance debate and what it means”

  1. pkdecville

    What’s wrong about pointing to the inherent risk within Google’s and FaceBook’s business models?

    These 2 companies thrive and survive on collecting, storing, and monetizing private personal information. Apple collects credit card numbers and does its best to limit, encrypt and anonymize all its collected data.

    Can you believe Google sends data in clear mode between its data centers? Says a lot about their sense of responsibility for protecting our information.

    And we can only guess what Google and FaceBook are collecting because that’s their information now and they have their right to keep what it is private. (irony)

    Did you hear the one about Google creating an opt out choice if you don’t want them to use your photo in ads? Did Larry make the decision to make it opt out? Big Cojones here.


    No matter what anyone thinks, Apple has a right, even as it protests, to remind us it has no business interest (by design and intent) to monetize our personal private data. And Google and FaceBook have that front and center in their business models.

    • Thanks for the comment, PXLated. I’m not trying to be petty, and I don’t disagree that Google’s primary business model is based on data collection. It’s fair for Apple to differentiate itself, but the tone and the content of the document still rings of tech-infighting at the expense of calling attention to civil liberties issues. Apple may not figure as prominently in the surveillance debate, but it is certainly a part of it.

      • Well, to me you came off as petty. I took it as less a competitive swipe but more just pointing out the difference (we don’t collect much data the snoops would be interested in, data is not our gig). Especially with the latest revelations about the NSA tapping the data center lines and grabbing everything. If I was Apple I’d be emphasizing the big difference top.

        Every tech company of note is probably part of it. We just haven’t heard about them all yet. On the other hand, between Google and Facebook the NSA probably has everything they could ever want :-(

  2. Technologies are fantascies distraction to human minds to take away from reality.. there is end for everything demands are endless resources are limited for every human as we are on lowest part of universe which is earth..?