Apple reaffirms privacy stance amid Trump probe revelations

SAN RAMON, CALIFORNIA (AP) — Seeking to protect its image as a guardian of personal privacy, Apple maintains it was blindsided and handcuffed by a Trump administration probe that resulted in the company handing over phone data from two Democratic congressmen.

Apple delivered its version of events on Friday in response to news reports detailing the United States (US) Justice Department’s attempts to use its legal power to identify leaks tied to an investigation into former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

The Justice Department was able to persuade a federal grand jury to issue a subpoena that culminated in Apple turning over the metadata — information that can include general records of calls and texts — about House Intelligence Committee members Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats, during 2018. Both lawmakers were key figures on the committee looking into Trump’s connections with Russia; Schiff is now the panel’s chair.

Neither Schiff and Swalwell knew some of the information had been seized until May 5, after a series of gag orders had finally expired, according to the company.

The revelation of Apple’s compliance with the subpoena emerged at a time when the company has been ramping up efforts to frame privacy as “fundamental human right” in its marketing campaigns. Apple also upped the privacy ante in April when it rolled out privacy controls on the iPhone as part of an effort to make it more difficult for companies such as Facebook to track people’s online activities to help sell ads.

In a statement, Apple emphasised it will continue to fight unjustified legal demands for personal information and keep customers informed about them.

But in this instance, Apple said it was constrained by a non-disclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge and said it had no information about the nature of the investigation.

“It would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts,” the Cupertino, California, company said. “Consistent with the request, Apple limited the information it provided to account subscriber information and did not provide any content such as e-mails or pictures.”

Apple also believes other technology companies may have been confronted with similar legal demands, based on the broad nature of the request it received for “customer or subscriber account information” spanning 73 phone numbers and 36 e-mail addresses.