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Apple, Google, and others are defying gov’ts to tell us when we’re being spied on

Tech companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft reportedly plan to inform more people about government and law enforcement requests for their data, including emails, and other online activity. All these firms are in the process of updating their company policies to “expand routine notification of users about government data seizures,” despite the subpoenas explicitly stating the subject of the investigation should not be alerted.

In a statement, Facebook told DigitalTrends: “We are committed to transparency, and providing notice about government requests is an important part of being transparent. We are always working to improve our notification process as the law permits.”

According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department isn’t pleased with the mini rebellion, and claims by notifying customers of such activity could not only put the subject in danger, but also risk ruining active criminal investigations. The companies say that people have a right to know when their data is being targeted, and this gives them the chance to take the battle to court, should they not want their privacy invaded.

While the majority of us will initially side with the tech firms on this issue, the Justice Department does make a compelling argument for everyone to keep their mouths shut. The report quotes an official statement, saying investigations could be threatened, and “potential crime victims” could be put in danger.

Department spokesperson Paul Carr lists the destruction of evidence, intimidation of witnesses, and fleeing suspects as some of the potential risks, adding these things are “unfortunately routine” in situations where people are suddenly made aware of surveillance. A former FBI agent agreed, damning the tech firm’s decisions as PR exercises at the “expense of public safety.”

However, Google told Digital Trends: “We notify users about legal demands when appropriate, unless prohibited by law or court order.” It was added that notifications would be sent to users except in specific situations, such as when there was a danger of death or serious physical injury to a person. 

Not every rule will be broken either, and officials from the aforementioned companies have said they won’t reveal everything. The exceptions that will remain secret include requests sent by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and administrative subpoenas sent by the FBI, all of which are covered by law. Data requests with a court-approved gag order would also be kept under the firms’ collective hats, which confirms Google’s statement on the matter.

It’s a tech-land lawyer at Perkins Coie, quoted in the Posts’s report, who highlights the reason why the policy changes should be considered a positive move. “It serves to chill the unbridled, cost-free collection of data,” he said.

Update: Added quotes from Facebook and Google.

[Image courtesy of Rena Schild/Shutterstock]