Apple Inc. on Tuesday released its first report on the numbers of requests it received in the first half of this year from governments seeking customer account and data information, and - no surprise here - the United States outpaced the rest of the world combined.
But the company couldn't disclose precisely how many U.S. government requests it received and the extent to which it complied. That's because U.S. restrictions required Apple to combine national security orders with account-based law enforcement requests - subpoenas, court orders and warrants - and report only the combined amounts in increments of 1,000.
"The U.S. government does not allow Apple to disclose, except in broad ranges, the number of national security orders, the number of accounts affected by the orders, or whether content, such as emails, was disclosed," said the report. "We strongly oppose this gag order, and Apple has made the case for relief from these restrictions in meetings and discussions with the White House, the U.S. Attorney General (Eric Holder), congressional leaders and the courts."
The issue has become politically heated since leaks of top-secret documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed how the agency - in its hunger for intelligence on terrorists and other countries - has forced telecommunications firms through secret court orders to turn over daily customer data in bulk.
Recent disclosures showed how the NSA was monitoring the cellphones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, igniting protests from close U.S. allies even though they spy on the United States.
Despite the disclosure restrictions, however, the new report made it clear how much more information the U.S. government demands from Apple and other telecommunications companies than the governments of other countries.
One table tabulates account information requests. The company defined those requests as generally involving data of customers with iTunes, iCloud or Game Center accounts or those who use on-line services in which there is an expectation of privacy, like identifying information, email, and stored content, such as photographs.
The table showed that Apple received account information requests from 31 countries in the first half of the year. Between 1,000 and 2,000 requests came from the United States, compared to 719 for the rest of the world combined. Britain, whose General Communications Headquarters works closely with the NSA, followed the United States, with 127 requests, followed by Spain - 102 - Germany - 93 - and Australia with 74.
The requests from the United States involved between 2,000 and 3,000 accounts, compared to 769 accounts for the rest of the world combined. Apple turned over data from 225 accounts to governments outside the United States, but its compliance with U.S. requests couldn't be deduced because the company was restricted to reporting a range of 0-1,000.
The account information requests are only a "small fraction" of the requests for customer information that governments seek from Apple, the report said, explaining that the "vast majority" are from law enforcement agencies seeking information about lost or stolen devices.
Apple said that it filed a Friend of the Court brief on Tuesday with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that approves orders compelling telecommunications firms to turn over customer data in bulk to the NSA, supporting a group of cases seeking greater latitude for those firms to disclose U.S. government information requests.
"We believe that our customers have a right to understand how their personal information is handled, and we consider it our responsibility to provide them with the best privacy protections available," the report said. "Our business does not depend on collecting personal data. We have no interest in amassing personal information about our customers."