Business Technology

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Apple: Prism 'is news to us'

Apple CEO Tim Cook waves to the crowd during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2013 in San Francisco, California
Apple CEO Tim Cook waves to the crowd during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2013 in San Francisco, California

Matt Warman

Apple first heard about Prism from the media, the company claims, as it discloses US government requests for information.

In a rare public statement, Apple reiterated its position that “We first heard of the government’s 'Prism' program when news organizations asked us about it on June 6.” The company says that accusations that the US government or the controversial spy programme has direct access to its servers are untrue, and says that it complies only with requests from the state when its own lawyers think they are valid.

It claims “We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer content must get a court order”. It also adds “We don’t collect or maintain a mountain of personal details about our customers in the first place”.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the Prism programme appeared to allow Britain’s GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required to obtain personal material, such as emails, photographs and videos, from internet companies based outside the UK.

“From December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013, Apple received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from US law enforcement for customer data," says Apple. "Between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices were specified in those requests, which came from federal, state and local authorities and included both criminal investigations and national security matters. The most common form of request comes from police investigating robberies and other crimes, searching for missing children, trying to locate a patient with Alzheimer’s disease, or hoping to prevent a suicide.

“Regardless of the circumstances, our Legal team conducts an evaluation of each request and, only if appropriate, we retrieve and deliver the narrowest possible set of information to the authorities. In fact, from time to time when we see inconsistencies or inaccuracies in a request, we will refuse to fulfill it.”

Microsoft said on Friday that it received 6,000-7,000 requests, regarding 31,000-32,000 accounts in the last six months. Facebook revealed its own ‘Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’ data, claiming that up to 19,000 user accounts were investigated by the US government.

All the companies, in addition to Google and Twitter, sought permission from the US government before revealing the data. Apple, however, like Facebook and Microsoft, declined to provide more details on how the requests broke down by category.

Apple also said that some data, such as iMessage and Facetime, is encrypted in such a way that even Apple itself can’t access it.

“Conversations which take place over iMessage and FaceTime are protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can see or read them,” the company said. “Apple cannot decrypt that data. Similarly, we do not store data related to customers’ location, Map searches or Siri requests in any identifiable form.”

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