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Apple responds to Congress' letter on data security and privacy

The company says it values our privacy.

Two iPhones side by side. One red, one blue, on a sheep-skin rug.
Apple has responded to Congress' inquiry regarding data security and privacy practices.
James Martin/CNET

Apple has just responded to Congress' inquiry on how it protects user privacy.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce last month sent letters to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Larry Page asking about the companies' data security and privacy practices. The five-page letter to Cook asked detailed questions about how Apple collected user data and what it used it for. 

In a response Tuesday, Apple reiterated that it collects as little data as possible as a practice. 

"We believe privacy is a fundamental human right and purposely design our products and services to minimize our collection of customer data," Timothy Powderly, Apple's director of federal government affairs, wrote in the company's response. "When we do collect data, we're transparent about it and work to disassociate it from the user."

The letter paints Apple's business model as different from those of other Silicon Valley titans, which often rely on selling consumer information to advertisers. 

"The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable information to enrich targeted profiles marketed to advertising," the letter reads. 

Apple addressed questions about a range of issues, including offline data collection through location services, cellular towers, Wi-Fi hotspots and Bluetooth connections.  Here are some takeaways:

Apple's iOS system encrypts location information and doesn't associate that information with any name or Apple ID. The iOS operating system also permanently deletes data from an iPhone if the phone doesn't connect to Wi-Fi or power for seven days.

iPhones without SIM cards will send a limited amount of information about cellular towers and Wi-Fi hotspots to Apple if the user has enabled location services. The information will be encrypted and isn't used for targeting advertising. If location services are turned off, the iPhone won't send any data to Apple.

Apple also said the company doesn't use the microphone on iPhones to listen to customers and it doesn't share information from Siri, its digital assistant, with third parties.

In addition, Apple also provided a list of data that can be collected by third-party apps downloaded by iPhone users. The list includes contacts, photos, Bluetooth sharing, health, speech recognition and more.

"The Committee looks forward to reviewing and analyzing the responses as we consider next steps," a Committee spokeswoman said in an email statement.

First published on August 7, 4:17 p.m. PT.

Updates, August 9, 5:51 a.m. PT: Adds Committee spokeswoman statement.