The US Internet giants are calling for the right to make public their figures regarding information requests they have received from United States government agencies, in order to burnish their data protection credentials with users.

Apple’s first ‘transparency report’ reveals the non-transparency of the US system

At a time when new revelations have laid bare how the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been intercepting personal data on millions of users of Yahoo! and Google’s fiber-optic networks outside the United States, the Internet giants are now hitting back in a bid to defend their business models and their credibility. Following Facebook, Microsoft and more recently Twitter, Apple has just published its first Report on Government Information Requests. While the report sheds some light on US government policy as regards official demands for personal data sharing, Apple is nevertheless subject to a ‘gag order’ which prevents the firm disclosing the exact number of requests it has received from US government bodies.

Preponderance of US requests

In this first ‘transparency report’ Apple reveals that it received over 5,000 information requests from US government agencies in the first half of 2013. Between 1,000 and 2,000 of these requests referred to iTunes accounts, the Cloud, and other online communication and sharing services. According to Apple, the other requests were not about protecting national security but related mainly to the theft or loss of devices. Requests came from both US and foreign

governments. However the vast majority were submitted by US agencies. The company states that it received between 1,000 and 2,000 from US officials and just 719 from outside the US, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and France being the next biggest information-seekers. In the majority of these cases Apple states that it did supply personal data to the governments as requested, but the report contains no precise information regarding its compliance, or otherwise, with the US requests.  In publishing the report, Apple is following the trend initiated by Facebook and Twitter, but the firm is also keen to mark a clear distance from them, stating that: “Unlike many other companies dealing with requests for customer data from government agencies, Apple’s main business is not about collecting information”.

Silicon Valley companies call for greater transparency

Since the recent scandals regarding the NSA and its PRISM program came to light, state-of-the-art technology firms that handle large amounts of personal data – the social networks in particular – have seen their popularity ratings collapse. Their business models depend heavily on user trust: users are benefiting from smarter and more integrated services in return for ever-greater flows of confidential data. The Apple report argues that the official gag order should be lifted so that Internet firms can provide greater transparency and reassurance to their customers. This position is very much in line with the basic strategy of the other sector giants. Google, Yahoo and Facebook have each filed an Amicus brief with the court under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, requesting an end to these restrictions so that they can publish the exact number of requests they receive from US government agencies.

By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst