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The 'Warrant Canary' in Apple's Transparency Report

By Jennifer LeClaire
November 7, 2013 2:23PM

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"Apple is setting the benchmark at the moment on how to get around the restrictions and still make people aware of the fact that it provides a safe home for consumer information," said analyst Rob Enderle. "These transparency reports are gaming the system, but it looks like Apple is gaming the system better than most."
 



Better late than never -- and maybe better than its competitors. That's the story behind Apple's first-ever transparency report revealing how many government requests it has received for data it collects on customers.

Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook rolled out their reports first, but some analysts are saying Apple takes it to another level. The reports started surfacing after the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance allegations pointed a finger at the technology giants in June.

Covering a period from Jan. 1 to June 30 of 2013, Apple's report does not reveal specific numbers for U.S. law enforcement request reports. But neither do its tech industry peers. Government regulations still won't allow it.

Apple's Revelation

"Like many companies, Apple receives requests from law enforcement agencies to provide customer information. As we have explained, any government agency demanding customer content from Apple must get a court order," the company said.

"When we receive such a demand, our legal team carefully reviews the order. If there is any question about the legitimacy or scope of the court order, we challenge it. Only when we are satisfied that the court order is valid and appropriate do we deliver the narrowest possible set of information responsive to the request."

Apple reports it received between 1,000 and 2,000 account information requests from law enforcement in the United States during the period. Most of the requests came from the United States. Germany made 93 requests, Spain made 102, and France made 71. Most other countries made far fewer.

Apple said the most common account requests involved robberies and other crimes or requests from law enforcement officers searching for missing persons, finding a kidnapping victim, or hoping to prevent suicide.

Apple Gets 'Warrant Canaries' Right

We asked Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, for his thoughts on the report. He told us Apple is doing its best to be transparent and showcase what they are providing to the NSA, which is a must-do for tech companies in this era.

"Apple is setting the benchmark at the moment on how to get around the restrictions and still make people aware of the fact that it provides a safe home for consumer information," Enderle said. "These transparency reports are gaming the system but it looks like Apple is gaming the system better than most."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that works to protect digital rights, seems to agree. It took note of the last two sentences in the report: "Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us."

The EFF's April Glaser said the statement is a "warrant canary," used to signal that there have been no secret orders served that might put a gag on Apple as of the publishing date.

"If the canary is removed in the next transparency report, it is safe for users to assume that a data request and the accompanying gag order has been issued," Glaser said. "We appreciate Apple's implementation in particular, including its six-month delay, because if its use is ever challenged in court, the ample time will allow a judge to coolly and calmly review the constitutionality of any government attempt to compel Apple to lie. We fear that if the first challenge to a warrant canary comes before a court in a more rushed context, a rushed judge could make bad law."
 

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