Apple has been caught in a public tussle with the government over unlocking iPhones of suspects in investigations far too many times but the company has invariably sided with its privacy principles refusing to budge and offer access. Behind the scenes, however, Apple may have been a lot more obliging with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
A new Reuters report claims Apple backtracked on its plan to end-to-end encrypt iPhone owners’ iCloud backups after the FBI, citing that the move would harm investigations, hounded it not to go ahead with it two years ago.
Over the last couple of years, Apple has been stern against iPhone unlock requests by U.S. law enforcement agencies. But the company has numerous times turned over suspects’ iCloud backups, giving up personal data such as iMessage chats and call logs.
In the first half of 2019 alone, authorities were able to obtain complete device backups of nearly 6,000 iCloud accounts. In addition to that, Apple reportedly turned over 14,000 accounts in response to secret U.S. intelligence court directives.
Since this set of data is not encrypted, Apple and its employees can search and view them at their leisure. The company only applies the highest level of security to users’ most sensitive information, such as passwords and health data. The addition of end-to-end encryption would have put an end to this practice.
Before launching an end-to-end encryption switch for iCloud backups, which essentially would have meant no one including Apple could read users’ data, the company is said to have consulted the FBI and upon repeated objection, it decided to drop the plan. This happened just a few months after Apple’s court battle with the FBI over access to an iPhone, and as stated by one former Apple employee, “They [Apple] decided they weren’t going to poke the bear anymore.”
In 2018, Google successfully launched a similar feature for Android device backups. Sources tell Reuters the search engine giant “gave no advance notice to governments, and picked a time to announce it when encryption was not in the news.”
It’s unclear whether following this report Apple will reconsider end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups. We have reached out to Apple and will update the story once we have a response.
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