Apple has refused a request from the Department of Justice for real-time iMessage wiretapping, a new report says, apparently suggesting that Apple could do it if it wanted to. A recent security report claimed that while iMessage (or FaceTime) doesn’t have a backdoor for the government, the end-to-end encrypted service is built in such a way that Apple could, if it wanted to, offer real-time access to messages and chats to a third-party – namely a spy agency working with a warrant – belonging to a suspect.
Apple never confirmed such abilities, but The New York Times says the company refused such access to the government. Apple said that its iMessage system is encrypted, and the company can’t comply with the request, the news site says.
However, Apple later provided access to iMessages stored in the user’s iCloud account, which aren’t real-time messages, and which aren’t encrypted.
The Times notes that the government has issues with two types of encoding companies including Apple use to protect user privacy and personal data from prying eyes.
The first is end-to-end encryption for iMessage and FaceTime. That means encryption and decryption are done at both ends of a conversation, with Apple left out of the process. The company only keeps copies of messages if users specifically save them in iCloud via backups.
The second kind of encryption concerns device encryption. That means only the owner of an iPhone or iPad could access the device, assuming it’s protected by a PIN, password or fingerprint.
Law enforcement agencies are fighting a PR battle with Apple and other companies, following the extensive Snowden leaks and scandals. Tech companies are now more and more reluctant at cooperating with the government, the Times says, as they’re trying to protect further the user’s privacy rights.
For Apple, building a backdoor into its encryption service isn’t an option either. “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said earlier this year at a conference on electronic privacy. “[If criminals or countries] know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it.”
“There’s another attack on our civil liberties that we see heating up every day — it’s the battle over encryption,” Cook also said. “We think this is incredibly dangerous.”
Microsoft is embroiled in a similar battle with the government, defending its case in court.