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FBI takes bite out of Apple’s privacy pie  

2020-01-22
iCloud

Apple likes to get loud and proud when it comes to data privacy. It’s not like Google, stalking every twitch of our eyeballs to sell targeted ads, and it’s certainly not like the Silicon Valley fratboys at Facebook; treating user data like crisp unmarked notes for the taking. Apple separated itself from these big tech cowboys by putting its eggs in the data privacy basket, especially since the Cambridge Analytical scandal blew up last year.

But some customers are left reeling this week to find out that the company dropped plans to let iPhone users encrypt their iCloud backup because the FBI complained it would harm their investigations. This happened over two-and-a-half years ago but has not been reported until now. So, while Apple has been talking the talk of a privacy advocate, it seems to be walking the walk of a surveillance agency. This is despite taking a harder line in high-profile legal disputes with the government and casting itself as a defender of its customers’ information.

More than two years ago, Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud reported Reuters news agency this week. The plan was set up to stop hackers, but it also meant that Apple would not have the key to unlock encrypted data. Meaning, of course, it could not then turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.

The FBI didn’t like that idea. Its cyber crime agents and its operational technology division objected, arguing it would deny them the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects. When Apple spoke privately to the FBI about its work on phone security the following year, the end-to-end encryption plan had been dropped, and the team Apple assembled to work on the encryption project were told to stop working on it, according to Reuters.

Apple’s decision not to proceed with end-to-end encryption of iCloud backups made the FBI’s job easier. iCloud can be searched in secret. In the first half of last year, the period covered by Apple’s most recent semiannual transparency report on requests for data it receives from government agencies, US authorities armed with regular court papers asked for and obtained full device backups or other iCloud content in 1,568 cases, covering about 6,000 accounts.

The company said it turned over at least some data for 90 percent of the requests it received. It turns over data more often in response to secret US intelligence court directives, which sought content from more than 18,000 accounts in the first half of 2019, the most recently reported six-month period.

Backed-up contact information and texts from iMessage, WhatsApp and other encrypted services remain available to Apple employees and authorities, and therefore of course, hackers.

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