Apple has long claimed to be the most privacy-conscious tech firm in Silicon Valley, but with companies like Google handing over data from iPhones to law enforcement, Apple’s privacy promises may prove useless.
A recent investigation by the New York Times has revealed that despite Apple’s claims of their iPhone being a privacy-focused mobile device, Google can still gain access to the information on Apple devices and hand it over to law enforcement. The Times investigation revealed that Google regularly uses its in-house database known as Sensorvault to help law enforcement.
Google uses the database to give police data from phones at a specific time or location. The police regularly submit “geofence” warrants which allows them to access data showing which phones were in proximity to a specific crime; one employee claims that Google has received as many as 180 geofence requests in a single week.
The data is initially anonymous when given to the police but once law enforcement has selected a number of devices they believe may be involved with the crime, Google hands over the names of the users associated with those devices. Former Google employee Brian McClendon told the Times that the method seemed to him to be like “a fishing expedition.”
According to an intelligence analyst who has examined data from hundreds of phones himself, the data collected included “most Android devices” and “some iPhones” which had their data made available to law enforcement by Google. Investigators claimed that they only sent geofence warrants to Google and Apple has claimed to not have the ability to perform the same kind of data searches on their users that Google can.
Apple has attempted to brand the company as privacy-focused since 2016 when Apple refused to comply with a request by the FBI to build a new version of its iOS operating software to break into the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the man behind the 2015 San Bernardino shooting which saw 14 people killed. Apple refused to make the custom software and CEO Tim Cook published an open letter in 2016 explaining that doing so would set a “dangerous precedent.”
“The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge,” Cook wrote.
Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, commented on the report from the New York Times telling Business Insider: “We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We have created a new process for these specific requests designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed and only producing information that identifies specific users where legally required.”
However, Apple has also provided some information to law enforcement, with Cook stating in the 2016 letter: “When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it.”