Apple v. U.S. Government: The Ongoing Saga

October 6, 2016

If you own an Apple device, you, along with more than 55 million Americans, are probably oblivious to the fact that Apple may be compelled to share your iMessage contact information with law enforcement. Apple, in their privacy policy, promotes that they protect the content of iMessages through encryption on both users’ end of communication and Apple’s end. However, what Apple does not mention is that every time you enter a phone number into your device, your phone contacts the Apple servers to determine whether this new contact information qualifies for the prestigious blue iMessage bubble. This log includes the phone number you entered along with your Internet Protocol (IP) address, which could be used to determine your location at the time you entered the phone number.

The fact that Apple stores phone numbers and IP address and may be compelled to share it with law enforcement seems contrary to the fact that Apple boasts “your iMessages… are your business, not ours.”

While law enforcement cannot see the content of what was sent between the numbers, they just see the two numbers have communicated. If that does not make you uneasy, just think about all the numbers you have in your phone that you may have used at some point in your life but no longer communicate with. In most cases, an Apple product user would like to protect who they are communicating with as much as what was said in the conversation.  “It requires little stretching of the imagination to come up with a scenario in which the fact that you swapped numbers with someone at some point in the past could be construed as incriminating or compromising.”
This discovery comes at a time when Apple has portrayed itself to be against any type of government intervention into its technology and pro user privacy. Apple recently combatted a court order to create a back door into the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, claiming that it did not want to set a dangerous precedent that would allow the U.S. government to intercept users personal information. However, are the people you choose to communicate and associate yourself with not personal information that is worth protecting?
There is an argument to be made that there is a national security interest in allowing law enforcement to obtain contact communication information for persons of interest. However, the current process for law enforcement to obtain a court order to receive this information is not arduous and does not require a high threshold of certainty that the information the government is seeking is contained in the data requested. If we want to prevent excessive data mining by law enforcement with loose constraints, we need to require law enforcement to show a higher degree of certainty for obtaining a court order.
Whether or not you believe there is a valid national security claim for law enforcement being able to obtain your contact and IP information so easily, there definitely is an ongoing dilemma on what information Apple keeps and whether the typical Apple user even understands that their information can be so easily shared. If Apple is going to make turning over sensitive information like this a routine practice, should they be disclosing more than they are in their privacy statement? Are your iMessages really your business and not someone else’s? These are areas of concern the public needs to be aware of and Apple needs to address, especially when Apple portrays itself as a titan of privacy pitted against the overreaching ideals of the U.S. government and law enforcement.