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Apple Has Ensured It Can't Hand Over iPhone Data to Law Enforcement

New encryption on Apple's just-released iOS 8 prevents the tech giant from accessing data on users' iPhones and iPads for the authorities.
Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP

The same week that Apple released iOS 8, the newest version of the company's mobile operating system, the tech giant did something out of character: It ceded power.

In a move in tune with the contemporary current of privacy concerns, riding the wake of more than a year of mass surveillance revelations, Apple announced on September 18 that encryption technology on iOS 8 would make it impossible for the company to hand over data from iPhones and iPads endowed with the operating system.


The privacy policy is such that the devices' passcodes are inaccessible to Apple itself, so the company couldn't hand over the data protected by these passcodes to government or law enforcement agencies. "It's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8," noted a statement on Apple's website.

The NSA has revealed new details about its exhaustive search of Edward Snowden's emails. Read more here.

It's a smart, user-pleasing move by the tech firm — but it's no huge needle in Big Brother's eye. Data stored in the iCloud remains accessible to Apple and thus accessible to police and government requests. We have not, therefore, seen the last celebrity nude photo hack — on this we can rely. Using Apple's new system, then, the onus is on the user to ensure that any data he or she wishes to protect must be blocked from transference to the iCloud, which tends to happen automatically without a savvy user altering a device's settings.

And herein lies the real canniness undergirding Apple's latest privacy move — the company has in fact protected itself from having to face law enforcement data requests. It's a burden no doubt happily forgone: The latest Google Transparency report, which enumerates government requests for user data, reveals that requests from the US government increased 250 percent over the last five years. When it comes to new iPhones and iPads, then, Apple can hold up its hands to data demands and thank the cryptography gods.


The tech giant's gesture to privacy is a smart one for a corporation with something to gain by responding to user concerns about their data.

The user then must be the focus of interrogation, as only he or she has access to the device's passcode. As such, the police would still be able to make data requests, but directly to the user — certainly an improvement on the opaque private information exchanges that have helped build the current corporate-government surveillance nexus.

Apple's new encryption methodology is not necessarily new. Kim Dotcom has claimed immunity from law enforcement demands about illegal file sharing on his most recent file-share venture, Mega, since users, not the site operator, hold both the encryption and decryption keys.

'Kim Dotcom: The Man Behind Megaupload.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

The tech giant's gesture to privacy is a smart one for a corporation with something to gain by responding to user concerns about their data. The company also finds itself aligning with current judicial tendencies to increase the barriers between police and personal data. As the Washington Post noted, "Apple's new privacy policy comes less than five months after the Supreme Court ruled that police in most circumstances need a search warrant to collect information stored on phones. Apple's action makes that distinction largely moot by depriving itself of the power to comply with search warrants for the contents of many of the phones it sells."

Apple should be commended for endowing users with the ability to protect their data. But this kernel of privacy comes the same very week the FBI announced a vast and sprawling biometrics surveillance apparatus, from which none of us are exempted. This is no great time for privacy. It's simply an ideal moment for Apple to play the privacy card and take itself off the hook in the face of ever-growing government and police interest in our private data.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard