Technology companies are fielding a growing number of requests for user data from law enforcement agencies, now that so much of our lives is tied up in our phones and in the data that we share from them. It’s a reality that’s led to a few showdowns between tech giants trying to stake out a reasonable position on privacy versus the legitimate needs that coincide with law enforcement investigations, and Apple has certainly found itself famously in that tough position before, of being on the opposite side of the table from the government.
In a new letter addressed to U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and signed by Apple general counsel Kate Adams, the company points out that it responded to more than 14,000 police requests in 2017 — requests that are completely separate from the ethically thornier problem of agencies wanting Apple to help it bypass encryption on a suspect’s Apple device. Those 14,000 requests from last year, though, appear to have inspired a significant new effort by Apple to work with law enforcement — just, well, on its own terms.
The letter to Sen. Whitehouse explains that Apple is in the process of setting up a special web portal to handle all those law enforcement requests that come in to the company. Along with that, Apple will set up a training module for law enforcement officers in addition to building out a team of its own professionals so that Apple can supply those officers with training and other Apple-specific insights on this new effort.
“Later this year, we will launch an online portal for law enforcement agencies around the world to submit lawful requests for data, track outstanding requests, and obtain responsive data from Apple,” reads the letter from Adams dated September 4, which was obtained by Macrumors. “When the portal goes live, law enforcement agents will be able to apply for authentication credentials, giving them the option to submit legal requests online.”
By way of providing some context for its new effort, that letter (the full text of which is available here) goes on to explain that those 14,000 requests last year were connected to more than 62,000 devices, accounts or financial identifiers in the U.S.
The training module Adams says Apple will develop mirrors the current in-person training the company gives officers on digital forensics and on how to obtain information from Apple.
Worth pointing out is that Apple won’t be sharing or dealing with encrypted data through this new portal. Meaning, this still doesn’t solve the problem of what’s been referred to as criminals and suspects “going dark” — hiding their activity on encrypted devices that Apple, at least, has steadfastly resisted providing any kind of back door or “golden key” into.
Whitehouse released a statement saying he’s glad to see Apple launch this platform and that he plans to “continue to work on bipartisan legislation to help law enforcement do its work in cyberspace.” Which may be the biggest takeaway here. That in terms of figuring out a way forward so that these things don’t have to keep getting addressed on a case-by-case basis, the tech companies themselves may need to come forward proactively with their own solutions, so that lawmakers don’t press forward with some kind of ham-fisted one-size-fits-all approach. The former, based on today’s news, seems to be what Apple had in mind.