Apple Now Requires Court Order Before Revealing User Data

Apple Inc. has announced a major change to its user privacy policy. The tech giant will now demand that it be served with a court order before divulging users’ push notification data to government agents. The change is similar to a recent modification announced by Alphabet Inc.’s Google and reflects a more cautious approach to protecting user data privacy and standing up to improper government surveillance.

“Push notifications” are used by mobile applications, which are computer programs connected to the internet for virtually any online activity. Notifications contain “metadata” that can tell which app on a mobile device received a notification and when. The information can also identify the specific Apple or Google account connected with the notification and the digital device that sent it.

The policy change came shortly after concerns were raised by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) about the way the federal government was obtaining “push notification” data from Apple and Google.

In a letter to Joe Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland, Wyden warned that the practice was leading to increased risks of hostile foreign governments similarly obtaining private American information. Wyden reacted positively to Apple’s policy change, noting, “This is how oversight is supposed to work.”

Metadata might appear to be harmless on its own, but it can provide investigators with the tools needed to identify a user’s location at given times and what apps they are using. This type of analysis is regularly used by government agents in surveillance work.

The notifications pass through servers maintained by Apple and Google. The tech giants thereby become intermediaries who possess sensitive information that can be used by investigators to construct a comprehensive timeline of an individual target’s interactions with computer programs and information systems around the globe.

Industry analysts believe the policy update is a positive move toward safeguarding user privacy against unwarranted government surveillance. The measured approach ensures that legitimate law enforcement work will still be facilitated through the standard practices required by the Fourth Amendment.