Apple Inc. under scrutiny in Washington for compliance with Trump-era covert subpoenas for user data on more than 100 users, including U.S. lawmakers, highlighting compelling tech companies in which they find themselves when they are obliged to meet the requirements of the police.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, whose data was among the documents Apple handed over to the Justice Department, said on Monday that lawmakers would look into how giant tech companies respond to quotes to appear to obtain information about their clients. Schiff, a Californian Democrat, enraged former President Donald Trump with congressional inquiries into his administration’s ties to Russia.
The House Judiciary Committee on Monday announced an investigation into the Justice Department’s surveillance of members of Congress, journalists and others, apparently sparked by an effort to crack down on media leaks. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also said it will look into the matter.
Learn more: House Judiciary Panel Joins Justice Review Department Investigation
Tech companies are already being criticized for their economic strength, their privacy policies, and their role in public discourse. With this episode, policymakers will turn their attention to the risks associated with the large amount of user data that tech companies disclose when subjected to relatively common subpoenas, privacy experts say. .
“The explosion of digital data held by internet companies and other third parties has made these subpoenas much more powerful and much more intrusive on people’s privacy,” Elizabeth Goitein of the Liberty & National Security program told Brennan Center for Justice. “We rely on the companies that hold this data to defend us and our interests and privacy rights in response to these kinds of requests, and it is not always clear that they have an incentive to do so.”
The Justice Department is already investigating Apple’s App Store practices, Bloomberg reported, which have also beenquestioned by Congress.
Earlier: Apple Application Store rules examined in US antitrust probe
Apple, which touts its customers when it comes to security and privacy, informed Democratic Representatives Schiff and Eric Swalwell, as well as House Intelligence Committee staff, last month that their user information was under scrutiny. a gag order that expired after being renewed three times.
The iPhone maker also informed former White House attorney Don McGahn last month that the company had handed over its user information in response to a subpoena, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The New York Times earlier reported that Apple handed over the McGahn files and was subpoenaed on behalf of Democratic lawmakers.
Apple said on Friday it was unaware at the time that the list of around 100 clients in subpoenas included lawmakers and said it provided metadata and subscriber information, but not content. emails or pictures.
Microsoft Inc. has confirmed that it has obtained a similar subpoena and said it is prohibited from informing people due to a gag order.Alphabet Inc.’s Google did not respond to whether he had been subpoenaed in the case, but a spokesperson pointed outpolicy on responding to government requests for user information, which indicates that the company often tries to restrict the request and sometimes is resistant to providing information.
Google said it received 15,537subpoenas to appear in the United States in the first six months of 2020, but did not disclose how he responded to each of them.
Schiff said he wanted to better understand when and how companies respond to subpoenas for different types of users, and how non-disclosure orders work in practice.
“It was certainly distressing to see that among some tech policies they had a different policy towards their corporate clients than average citizens or even members of Congress,” Schiff said. “We intend to learn more about technological practices. “
Cell phone and email data held by a third party – in this case Apple – is different from landline or bank data that would have been subpoenaed in the past, according toJulian Sanchez, tech and privacy expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Even returning the time, date and duration of calls and texts – without the content of those messages – could reveal critical information about a user’s activity, Sanchez said.
“The metadata in these cases gives you a level of visibility into the nature of those communications and the potential relationship that doesn’t really exist with a phone recording,” Sanchez said.
Summons are relatively easy to obtain, Sanchez said. They can be issued for someone’s information that is simply relevant to the investigation, he said, arguing that the standard should be much higher for obtaining such personal details. The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution protects against warrantless “search and seizure”, Sanchez said, noting that some Internet data should meet the standard of constitutional protection.
According to legal experts, requiring personal information about a person from a company is also problematic if the person does not know they have been targeted. In this case, Apple said it received a one-year gag order along with the subpoenas, which were later extended.
Microsoft President and General Counsel Brad Smith on Monday urged lawmakers to limit this type of nondisclosure order that prevents a company from notifying a user when their information is sought by law enforcement. In 2016, Microsoft filed a complaint against the Department of Justice regarding this issue, and a year later, the department released new guidelines that it said would reduce the practice of these types of confidential orders.
“If we don’t, we’ll be undermining long-standing fundamental freedoms in the country and frankly, for those of us in the tech industry, we’re put in the middle and that’s not where we should. be, “Smith said in a statement.interview with Bloomberg TV. “This should be an issue that the government has to address most of the time to the people whose information it seeks.”
Illinois Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said that while Apple has positioned itself as a leader in privacy practices, there is little the company can do to protect corporate metadata. ” a legal subpoena or, in this case, informing users that they have been targeted.
“The big question mark is whether they tried to fight the gag order and, if not, why not,” Krishnamoorthi said in an interview. “In this particular case, it’s very problematic and it’s a very shocking use of a subpoena.”
– With help from Billy House, Greg Farrell, Chris Strohm and Dina Bass