Apple details U.S. requests for customer data amid NSA furor

From December 1, 2012, to May 31, 2013, Apple said it received between 4,000 and 5,000 government requests, affecting 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices.

Apple's Cupertino headquarters, where tomorrow's event is happening.
Apple's Cupertino, California headquarters. James Martin/CNET

Joining Facebook and Microsoft , Apple has revealed the number of requests from U.S. law enforcement for user information and affected accounts.

The iPad maker said that it received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies for customer data from December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013, and that 9,000 to 10,000 accounts or devices were specified in the requests. Apple did not state how many of the requests were from the National Security Agency or how many affected accounts or devices may have been tied to any NSA requests.

But Apple did say that "the most common form of request" came from police -- presumably local or state agencies, judging by the context in the company's statement -- "investigating robberies and other crimes, searching for missing children, trying to locate a patient with Alzheimer's disease, or hoping to prevent a suicide."

The tally from Apple emerges amid a furor that erupted earlier this month over allegations that the NSA has engaged in a sweeping effort to surreptitiously acquire information connected to phone calls and Web usage.

Apple said in its statement that it does not provide any government agency with direct access to its servers and that government agencies requesting customer content must get a court order.

Previous to Apple's disclosure, Facebook stated that it received 9,000 to 10,000 requests for customer data from government agencies, and that between 18,000 and 19,000 of its 1.1 billion accounts were impacted over a six-month period ending December 31, 2012.

Microsoft disclosed that it received 6,000 to 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas, and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. governmental entities over the same six-month period.

A Google representative told CNET that it is working on disclosing the same type of statistics, and plans to be more detailed than Microsoft or Facebook.

In its note, Apple reiterated that it does not give any government agency direct access to its servers, and requires a court order to release customer content.

Below is Apple's full statement:

Two weeks ago, when technology companies were accused of indiscriminately sharing customer data with government agencies, Apple issued a clear response: We first heard of the government's "Prism" program when news organizations asked us about it on June 6. 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.

Like several other companies, we have asked the U.S. government for permission to report how many requests we receive related to national security and how we handle them. We have been authorized to share some of that data, and we are providing it here in the interest of transparency.

From December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013, 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.

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.

Apple has always placed a priority on protecting our customers' personal data, and we don't collect or maintain a mountain of personal details about our customers in the first place. 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.

We will continue to work hard to strike the right balance between fulfilling our legal responsibilities and protecting our customers' privacy as they expect and deserve.
 

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