Apple: iMessage, FaceTime More Secure Than Cell Phones

Apple logoFollowing the NSA-PRISM surveillance revelations last week and “direct-access rebuttals” by other major tech firms, Apple has released a similar statement denying that the government has unfettered access to its users’ data.

Apple said, “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.”

The company said it was “authorized [by the US] to share” and that in the past six months “Apple received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement for customer data. 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.”

Apple explained that its legal team assesses the legitimacy of each law-enforcement request.

Interestingly Apple added that it doesn’t retain certain categories of data and so cannot turn those data over when requested:

There are certain categories of information which we do not provide to law enforcement or any other group because we choose not to retain it. For example, 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. Apple cannot decrypt that data. Similarly, we do not store data related to customers’ location, Map searches or Siri requests in any identifiable form.

Thus, Apple seems to be saying it’s “safer” to have conversations over iMessage and FaceTime because they’re encrypted vs. ordinary wireless networks.

Meanwhile, more surveillance revelations keep coming, including yesterday’s bombshell that the UK spied on allies’ diplomatic communications at 2009 G-20 summit meetings in London. And, a Washington Post article this weekend goes into the history and origins of broad NSA surveillance under the second Bush administration.

This weekend, the NSA also sought to “correct” the perception that it indiscriminately listens in on US telephone communications. According to an AP article, US officials said that “fewer than 300 phone numbers were checked against the database of millions of U.S. phone records gathered daily by the NSA” and added that the surveillance programs helped prevent or thwart potential terrorist plots “in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries.” The agency said that the data are “destroyed every five years.”

We’re likely to see a call for more encryption of ordinary online communications following NSA-PRISM. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes in consumer behavior as a result of the scandal. I suspect there will not be.

Related Topics: Apple | Apple: Siri | Channel: Industry | Legal | Legal: PRISM | Legal: Privacy

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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