Silicon Valley’s Tech Giants Reluctantly Plunged Into Spying Controversy

On February 6, 2018, Apple received a grand jury subpoena for names and phone records associated with 109 email addresses and phone numbers. This was one of the more than 250 data requests the company received on average weekly from US law enforcement agencies at the time. Apple’s paralegal provided the information accordingly.

This year, the subpoena gag order has expired. Apple said it warned those who were subpoenaed, as well as dozens of customers every day. However, this request was unusual.

Apple said it had unknowingly handed over data from Congressional officials, their families, and at least two members, including then-ranking member of the House intelligence committee and now chairman Adam Schiff. The subpoena turned out to be part of an extensive investigation by the Trump administration regarding the leakage of confidential information.

The revelation plunged Apple into the midst of a big fire over the Trump administration’s efforts to find the source of news articles, and its treatment highlights the flood of law enforcement demands that tech companies are increasingly competing for. There is. The number of these requests has skyrocketed to thousands per week in recent years, and Apple and other major tech companies such as Google and Microsoft are offended by law enforcement agencies, courts, and customers who have promised privacy protection. I am in a good position.

As legally required, businesses respond to requests on a regular basis. Subpoenas can be ambiguous, so Apple, Google, and others are often uncertain about the nature and subject of the investigation. If the subpoena is too broad or related to a company’s customers, you can challenge some of the subpoenas. In the first six months of 2020, Apple challenged 238 government requests for customer account data, or 4% of those requests.

As part of the same leak investigation by the Trump administration, Google fought a subpoena this year to submit data on the emails of four New York Times reporters. Google argued that Times’ contract as an email provider required the newspaper to be notified of government email requests, said Ted Boutros, an outside lawyer for Times.

However, companies often comply with law enforcement requirements. And it emphasizes the nasty truth. As products become the center of people’s lives, the world’s largest tech companies become oversight mediators, key partners of the authorities, and have the authority to arbitrate which demands are respected and which are rejected.

Alan Z. Rosenstein, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and a former Justice Department lawyer, said: Given “the vast amount of data these companies have” and how everyone has a smartphone, most law enforcement investigations “at some point relate to these companies.” There are. “

On Friday, June 11, an independent Inspector General of the Justice Department began investigating a federal prosecutor’s decision to secretly seize data from Democrats and reporters. Senator Democrats also demanded that former Attorney Generals William Barr and Jeff Sessions testify before Congress about the leak investigation, especially the subpoenas issued to Apple and Microsoft.

In a statement, Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said the company regularly challenged government data requirements and notified affected customers as soon as legally possible.

“In this case, the subpoena, including a confidentiality order issued by a federal grand jury and signed by a justice of the peace, does not provide information about the nature of the investigation, making it virtually impossible for Apple to understand its intent. You can get the information you need without digging into your account, “he said. “On request, Apple limited the information it provided to account subscriber information and did not provide content such as email or photos.”

Microsoft said in a statement that it received a subpoena related to a personal email account in 2017. After the Gag order expired, he notified the customer and said he knew he was a member of Congress. “In such cases, we will continue to actively seek reforms that impose reasonable restrictions on government secrets,” the company said.

Google declined to comment on whether it received a subpoena related to the House Intelligence Commission’s investigation.

The Justice Department has not publicly commented on Apple’s submission of House intelligence records. In this week’s parliamentary testimony, Attorney General Merrick Garland said he avoided criticism of the Trump administration’s decision and said the record was seized “under a set of policies that have existed for decades.”

In a Justice Department leak investigation, Apple and Microsoft submitted so-called metadata about people who worked in Congress, such as phone records, device information, and addresses. It is not uncommon for the Justice Department to summon such metadata. The information is because it can be used to determine if someone has contacted a member of the media or if that person’s work or home account is associated with the anonymous account used to distribute sensitive information. .. information.

Under the subpoena issued by the authorities, Apple and Microsoft also agreed not to speak to those who requested the information. For Apple, the one-year gag order was updated three times separately. This was in contrast to Google, which resisted the subpoena gag order submitting data from four Times reporters.

The difference in response is mainly explained by the various relationships that the company had with its customers in this case. Apple and Microsoft were ordered to hand over data related to their personal accounts, but the subpoena to Google affected corporate customers who comply with the contract. The deal provided Google with a more concrete basis for challenging the gag order, the lawyer said.

The subpoena to Apple was also more opaque, only requesting information about a series of email addresses and phone numbers, and the company said it was unaware that it was relevant to a congressional investigation. In the case of Google, it was clear that the Justice Department asked the Times for a record, as the email address clearly belonged to a Times reporter.

Google generally said it wouldn’t handle customer information requests differently for individual accounts and corporate customers. However, the company insists on redirecting corporate customer data requests based on the Justice Department’s own recommendations.

According to the guidelines released in 2017, the Prosecutor’s Office will “look for data directly” from companies rather than through technology providers, unless it is unrealistic or jeopardizes the investigation. Prompted to. The Justice Department tried to avoid the Times by going to Google to get information about reporters. Google didn’t say whether it used the Justice Department’s guidelines to fight the Gag Order.

Google said it generated data in 83% of its approximately 40,000 information requests from US government agencies received in the first half of 2020. By comparison, 39% of Google’s 398 paying corporate customer information requests generated data. Cloud during the same period (including providing email and web hosting).

Law enforcement demands for data from American tech companies have more than doubled in recent years. Facebook said it received about 123,000 data requests from the US government last year, up from 37,000 in 2015.

According to Apple, in the first half of 2020, US law enforcement agencies averaged 400 customer data requests per week, more than double that of five years ago. The company’s compliance rate has remained between approximately 80% and 85% for many years.

Authorities are also requesting more account information in each request. According to the company, in early 2020, US government subpoenas or warrants against Apple required an average of 11 account or device data from less than three accounts or devices in the first half of 2015.

Apple said it requested law enforcement to limit requests to 25 accounts each after starting to include more than 100 accounts in some subpoenas, as the government did in a 2018 leak investigation. It was. The company said police did not necessarily obey.

Apple often disagrees with subpoenas that include so many accounts because it’s too wide, said a former senior lawyer at the company, who spoke on terms of confidentiality. It wasn’t surprising that Apple challenged the 2018 Subpoena summons, but depending on whether the paralegal handling the subpoena promoted it to a higher-ranking lawyer. He said the request depended on whether it could be challenged.

This article was originally New York Times.. Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company. Charlie Savage contributed to the report.

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