Tech: Apple is building a special portal for law enforcement officials to get user data — here's Apple's letter describing the plan (AAPL)

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Apple CEO Tim Cook

In a letter to a US Senator, obtained by Business Insider, Apple explains how it will create a special portal for law enforcement officials to legally request and receive user data.

  • Apple will create a special portal for law enforcement officials to legally request and receive user data from Apple, according to a letter sent to a senator and obtained by Business Insider.
  • Apple responded to over 14,000 police requests including 231 "domestic emergency" requests in 2017, according to the letter.
  • These actions are not related to the "going dark" issue, where government officials are pressuring tech companies to build features that could crack encryption on devices like the iPhone.
  • But the letter shows that Apple is comfortable working with law enforcement when they have subpoenas and other legal requests for data.

In a letter to the US Senate, Apple's highest-ranking lawyer said that the company plans to take several steps to make it easier for police to obtain some of its users' data during investigations.

Police frequently subpoena user data from the big tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Apple. These companies are required by law to comply with those requests.

Apple, for example, responded to some 14,000 of these requests in the United States last year. To streamline this process, Apple plans to open a special online portal for law enforcement officers to request and obtain user data — assuming they have the proper legal grounds for doing so.

"Later this year, we will launch an online portal for law enforcement agencies around the world to submit lawful requests for data, track outstanding requests, and obtain responsive data from Apple," according to the September 4 letter Apple sent, which was obtained by Business Insider. The letter is signed by Kate Adams, Apple's general counsel.

"When the portal goes live, law enforcement agents will be able to apply for authentication credentials, giving them the option to submit legal requests online," the letter continues.

Apple also plans to create a team that will train police and other law enforcement around the world about what help the company can provide with criminal investigations, as well as an online version of its current training.

Many of Apple's changes are in response to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called "Low Hanging Fruit." The report was presented in a Senate briefing by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who the Apple letter was addressed to.

"As more data ends up online and on our devices, we have to come up with new, smart ways for tech companies and law enforcement to unlock information that can solve crimes," Whitehouse said in a statement. "I’m glad to see Apple launch this platform aimed at sharing that critical information safely and securely. I’m going to continue to work on bipartisan legislation to help law enforcement do its work in cyberspace."

"Increasingly, information that is critical is digital, and it's in the hands of third-parties tech providers that control and manage so much information about their users and customers, and law enforcement with adequate privacy protections should be able to access that data," said Jennifer Daskal, a co-author of the CSIS report and assistant professor at American University's Washington College of Law.

Of note, the report did not address matters of encryption — a topic on which Apple famously took a strong stance in 2016, when the government ordered the company to hack the iPhone of one of the suspects in a shooting in San Bernardino.

Going dark and building 'back doors'

The letter comes in the middle of a debate over whether government can require tech companies to build features into its software to make it easier for police to get information from password-protected technology.

Currently, many devices and services like the iPhone and iMessage are "encrypted" — which means that the data on them is scrambled and locked so that nobody can read it unless they have the requisite key to unlock the data.

Some law enforcement officials, like former FBI Director James Comey, have said that this could lead to some criminals "going dark," where police can't access evidence they need, which he has called a "significant public safety issue."

Technologists call features that allow police to break or get around encrypted data "backdoors," and a major international body dedicated to spying, the so-called Five Eyes, recently threatened to force technology companies to build so-called backdoors into encrypted messaging and call programs.

Many programmers believe that any backdoors makes everyone's software less secure, because hackers who aren't law enforcement would be able to take advantage as well.

The "going dark" issue became international news in 2016, following the San Bernardino incident.

'Every investigation of every kind of crime'

The data that Apple will provide through its new portal isn't encrypted device data, though.

Most law enforcement requests are for iCloud backups, photos, payment information, or other data that is stored on Apple's servers in a user-readable format when people choose to use Apple services like iCloud or FaceTime.

Those kind of requests have grown prodigiously with the rise of smartphones — now digital evidence is involved in nearly every police investigation. "We're not just talking about investigating cybercrimes, or certain types of specialized crimes, it's now relevant in just about every investigation of every kind of crime because of the shift in the way we all communicate,"Daskal said.

In fact, encryption is not the biggest issue that police departments face when obtaining access to information. According to the CSIS report, which surveyed police at the federal, state and local levels, one challenge is simply learning what's available.

Another challenge is getting police and big tech companies on the same page.

"Law enforcement, generally, was incredibly frustrated with what they saw as a lack of clarity from service providers about what they needed to do to get information, such that some suggested that service providers were trying to thwart access in some cases," Daskal said.

"Whereas service providers from their perspective seemed to be concerned that law enforcement in their view was asking for information that they didn't have or making requests that were overbroad or from the service providers perspective inappropriate or without sufficient limitations, with respect to time, for example," she continued.

These kind of issues can be addressed through training, she said.

Although Tuesday's letter does not mention encryption or "going dark," and focuses on unrelated issues, it does indicate that Apple is working on ways to provide evidence and other data to law enforcement in a way that doesn't require it to change its software to provide ongoing access to law enforcement.

The plan to create an Apple law enforcement portal was first reported by MacRumors.

Read the entire letter below:

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