Apple collects a lot of data about its companies. Most iOS devices and Mac computers are linked to an Apple ID, and are reportings large swathes information back to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino.
It’s easy to think of Apple as safe hands for our personal data: it seems such a private company. Google, in contrast, is fairly open about its aims to gather the world’s information and make it publically accessible. Most people are just a bit surprised when they realise that includes their personal information.
Apple, however doesn’t have this feel to it, even though is every bit as much a data driven company as others in Silicon Valley. Web Analytics describes data driven as “the transformation that companies need to go through in the digital world, relying less on “gut feel” and more on cold, hard data to guide business decision making.” Even post Steve Jobs that doesn’t sound like the Apple we know.
But Apple is clearly handling a lot of our personal information. It must be doing something with it.
Why does Apple collect personal information?
Apple is actually a very old-fashioned company that happens to cutting edge products. It makes a high-quality product and sells it for more than it makes it for. Many modern companies find this a hard process to emulate not because it’s forward thinking; but old-fashioned thinking.
Google is a very different company to Apple. It mostly gives stuff away for free in return for information; which it then either uses to pitch personalised adverts at you, or sells to other people. This often works against it, such as Google Glass which has serious privacy concerns.
The NSA headquarters
Is Apple sharing my information with the government?
So Apple isn’t, as far as we know, selling and sharing your personal information with other companies. That doesn’t mean there is no cause for concern however. A bigger issue at the moment is not marking spam, but government organisations.
This has been thrown into sharp relief lately by the NSA (the US-based National Security Agency, not to be confused with the UK’s National Sheep Association). The whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had cracked the security of, or was having meetings with, most major technology companies and was now processing virtually every message shared on the internet. Behind that is an even more pressing concern about data requests from lower level government agencies, these often result in your personal information being shared with local government.
And these data requests are on the rise. Google’s Transparency Report page notes that the company received 21,389 requests in 2012, compared to just 12,539 in 2009. And the number is rising year on year. Facebook recieved 38,00 requests in 2013.
Very little information is received about what type of government departments are making these requests. The whole process has a legally enforced shroud of secrecy to it. "We continue to push the United States government to allow more transparency regarding these requests including specific numbers and types of national security-related requests,” said a Facebook spokesperson to The Guardian’s Dominic Rushe “We will publish updated information for the United States as soon as we obtain legal authorisation to do so."
Does Apple have your back with the government?
There is genuine concern that Apple is not as focussed on protecting its customers as other companies. This is one area where Apple’s much-vaunted secrecy could be working against it. It’s not sharing information about government requests in the same way it wouldn’t share information about research and development.
The EFF (Electronic Freedom Foundation) gave Apple a paltry one star in its 2013 report on technology companies. This was due to Apple fighting for users rights in congress. According to the EFF report these are the things Apple doesn’t do:
Requires a warrant for content
Tell users about government data requests
Publishes a transparency report
Publish law enforcement guidelines
Fights for users privacy rights in courts.
Those are fairly major blank spots for a company like Apple. John Paul Titlow from Readwrite.com says “The EFF chides Apple for not publishing a transparency report as companies like Google and Twitter do. Without that, users have no idea what kinds of information the government asks for, because Apple won't tell them, nor does it let them know what its guidelines are for dealing with law enforcement data requests.”
What info does Apple collect?
Apple collects a lot of personal information about its users. It splits these into Personal Info and Non Personal Info.
Your personal info
The personal information Apple collects about you includes:
Credit card information.
The personal info of people you share information with.
Apple does not share your personal info with other marketing agencies. Although because Apple does not provide a transparency report we don’t know how much of this information it passes on to government requests.
Non personal info
No personal information is collected by Apple and Apple’s privacy terms and conditions state that: “We may collect, use, transfer and disclose non-personal information for any purpose.” These include the following:
Unique device identifier
Location and the time zone
Customer activities on our website, iCloud and MobileMe services, and iTunes Store, and from our other products and services. This information is aggregated
Apple notes that “If we do combine non-personal information with personal information, the combined information will be treated as personal information for as long as it remains combined” but that “This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you”
Some location-based services offered by Apple, such as the “Find My iPhone” feature, require your personal information for the feature to work.
What does Apple do with your information?
In June 2013 Apple released a statement called: "Apple’s Commitment to Customer Privacy:. In it Apple said "Like several other companies, we have asked the U.S. government for permission to report how many requests we receive related to national security and how we handle them. We have been authorized to share some of that data, and we are providing it here in the interest of transparency. From December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013, Apple received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement for customer data. Between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices were specified in those requests, which came from federal, state and local authorities and included both criminal investigations and national security matters. The most common form of request comes from police investigating robberies and other crimes, searching for missing children, trying to locate a patient with Alzheimer’s disease, or hoping to prevent a suicide."
This is another one of those areas where Apple’s oft-famed secrecy and reticent about revealing its business practices are working against it. It may be that Apple shares very little of our information with government organisations, we certainly don’t think it shares much data with other third-party companies (Apple just likes to keep secrets). But without a transparency report from the company, and clarification of just what a government organization requires to get information out of Apple; we remain largely in the dark.
Edit: This article has been updated following clarification from Apple on the number of accounts that the U.S. Government requested information on.