The next time you're thinking about buying a new smartphone, there's one more spec you might want to consider. If the FBI or the IRS wants to read your texts, will Apple hand them over? Would it require the feds to get a warrant first? And would it even bother to let you know that federal agents made the request in the first place?
If you're looking at a shiny new iPhone, the answers are not comforting.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's latest digital privacy report, Who's Got Your Back?, awards Apple its secondthe Electronic Frontier Foundation gives Apple a paltry one out of six stars. While Apple got credit for supporting efforts to defend users by modernizing electronic privacy laws, its apparent willingness to hand over your personal information to the government without a warrant and its failure to tell its users how it handles such requests put it in the dock.
Worse Than Comcast: Apple's Privacy Black Box
Apple came off much, much worse than most of its peers — here defined as major non-ISP mobile-computing players. Apple fared worse than Amazon (two stars), Facebook (three), Microsoft (four) and Google (five). Even Comcast, the cable conglomerate consumers love to hate, scored one star higher than Apple.
The EFF chides Apple for not publishing a transparency report as companies like Google and Twitter do. Without that, users have no idea what kinds of information the government asks for, because Apple won't tell them, nor does it let them know what its guidelines are for dealing with law enforcement data requests.
Apple certainly wasn't the worst-ranked company overall. The major telcos and ISPs almost always get raked over coals on privacy. In this report, Verizon got no stars, while AT&T racked up a grand total of one. MySpace also got no stars and Yahoo only got one. Amazon's showing is also pretty disappointing, especially considering its vast storehouse of consumer-purchase data and its rumored plans to enter the smartphone market.
But Apple dominates mobile computing in a way few other companies do. And as the proprietor of a mobile operating system that runs on more than half a billion devices, Apple has its hands on a lot of data. Its approach to privacy matters to an awful lot of people — and its lousy performance is a big deal considering how deeply its devices are embedded into our lives.
That integration is only getting deeper as Apple prototypes wearable devices and dreams up more screens to dominate.
Not Just A Computer Company Anymore
It's not all together shocking that Apple has some catching up to do in the privacy realm. Until recently, it didn't deal with all that much information about its customers. For most of its history, the company was called Apple Computer, because that's what it sold: computers.
In the early days, the only way for the government to snoop through your MacIntosh was to get a warrant to search your apartment. Today's Apple's computers are smaller, constantly connected to the Internet and, increasingly reliant on iCloud to sync and share data across devices.
Whereas Google has been handling (and profiting from) user data since day one, Apple is only just getting started. If you use iCloud, its servers house your calendars, email, photos, notes and any other data you choose to feed it. If you're using iOS 5 or higher, you're also entrusting Apple with whatever percentage of your personal text messages go through its iMessage protocol.
To its credit, Apple built iMessage using end-to-end encryption that makes its harder for others to snoop on the contents of messages. Of course, if the FBI — or the local cops — really want to know what you're iMessaging back and forth, they can go directly to Apple, with or without a warrant.
Of course, if the texts in question aren't iMessages, the authorities could just do what they've always done: Ask the mobile data provider to see them. Such requests have seen a dramatic uptick in recent years, and the major ISPs don't approach them with the same level of transparency that a company like Twitter or Sonic.net would.
Why Consumers Should Care
Apple has never been lauded for having a forward-thinking and open approach to user privacy issues. That hasn't stopped millions of people from trying to predict the company's next gadget and then eagerly standing in line to purchase it.
Part of that may have to do with awareness. Digital privacy reports excite a certain breed of data nerd (OK, guilty as charged), but they don't approach the media attention lavished on Apple product announcements. Nor is the EFF's chart plastered all over billboards, bus stops and television sets.
Even for those of you who already knew that Apple doesn't treat your privacy with kid gloves, the risk of the government peeking into law-abiding texts and calendars is too remote to worry about. To some, this is just a side effect of the hyper-connected, digitally-immersed society we're becoming. Even if they don't particularly like it, it's just not their battle to fight.
Trouble is, that sort of complacency puts no pressure on Apple to get more proactive about keeping your digital life safe from prying eyes.
If you fall in this category, you might still luck out, of course. Even if there's some major privacy gaffe down the line, it might not affect you. And if you're fortunate, IRS agents aren't currently reading your Apple email or iMessages, looking for possible evidence of tax evasion.
But given Apple's current practices in this regard, if they are, you'd never know. Maybe ignorance really is bliss.