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Apple’s government subpoenas raise a much bigger tech issue

June 15, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

Privacy experts are concerned about revelations of a growing number of subpoenas the Department of Justice, under former President Donald Trump, issued to Apple for data from high-profile politicians. And the concerns go beyond politics.  

Last week news broke that as part of its investigation into government information leaks in 2017 and 2018, the DOJ subpoenaed Apple for data from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. This week, The Times revealed that the DOJ also issued Apple a subpoena for information on Donald F. McGahn II, who was Trump’s White House counsel at the time in 2018. The kicker? McGahn didn’t find out until last month due to gag orders that likely were renewed several times, The Times reports. 

The subpoenas raise big questions about whether there was a violation between the separation of powers between the branches of government. But they also revive questions about the role of tech companies in law enforcement requests for user data. 

“This is one of those things that’s hard for the regular person to feel affects them, but it does,” said Gautam Hans, a Vanderbilt Law School associate professor and former director for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco. “It demonstrates not only how easy it is for law enforcement to get access, but also how much information these companies have on our lives.”

By successfully probing just one tech company, the government can discover a trove of information about a user, Hans said. And it’s not that hard to get a subpoena for such information, he added. 

Alan Butler, the executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, believes that these revelations not only strengthen the argument that companies should minimize the user data they collect and store, but also that user data needs “stronger legal protections.” Specifically, he says, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which limits the data law enforcement can access, needs updating. The law hasn’t been touched since the early 1990s—back before social media, iPhones and Android smartphones, and when Amazon was known as an online bookseller. 

Tech companies also should do a better job of pushing back on certain requests, asking for more information about the requested users, and making sure users are more in the know, said Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel for digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Even if companies are required to comply with a lawfully obtained subpoena, the company can separately challenge the gag order,” he said.

Apple often positions itself as a staunch defender of user privacy and closed, secure networks. But when it comes to government requests, matters become much more complicated for Apple and its Big Tech counterparts.

Danielle Abril
@DanielleDigest
danielle.abril@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Using peer pressure. The U.S. government is hoping new incentives will entice other countries to avoid using telecommunications gear from Chinese tech makers like Huawei and ZTE, according to The Wall Street Journal. Why? The U.S. is worried about the possibility that Beijing could coerce the companies into using its gear to spy on other countries. So the government is offering a set of loans and training programs to help places including Central America and Eastern Europe develop their 5G networks without the Chinese equipment.

Big Tech’s big climate issue. Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Intel, eBay, Salesforce, and Autodesk are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to raise the bar when it comes to climate change. They want the agency to require companies to regularly disclose any issues related to the climate to their shareholders, CNBC reports. The news comes as the tech companies continue to make big promises about reducing their carbon footprint and creating a sustainable future. 

“Affirmative, Dave. I read you.” Stripe is using computer vision and machine learning for its new product aimed at verifying people’s identities. The service is called Stripe Identity and was developed to help companies match government IDs with live selfies in as little as 15 seconds, TechCrunch reports. Meanwhile, companies can rest easy on the data front. Stripe says it will handle all user data and encrypt it to boot. Discord, a streaming service popular with gamers; Peerspace, an online service for booking venues; and Shippo, a shipping software company, are reportedly piloting the tech, which Stripe is testing in 30 countries.

A tale of two threats. Like the Colonial Pipeline, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union was hit by a ransomware attack two years ago. But unlike the pipeline operator and against the wishes of the FBI, the Teamsters refused hackers’ ransomware demand of $2.5 million and remained locked out of their systems, according to NBC, which first reported the event on Monday. The Teamster’s solution? Rebuild and restore from their archives. To be clear, the Colonial Pipeline is in charge of critical infrastructure and would’ve caused a much more devastating effect had it waited. But the growing number of attacks—and the various ad hoc ways entities have handled them—is another reminder that there’s much work to be done.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The controversial firings of Google Ethical A.I. leads Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell sent shockwaves through the research community and raised questions about whether companies should be overseeing the work done by their researchers. But now independent groups are aiming to change the power structure in order to ensure A.I. systems are inclusive. Karen Hao, senior A.I. editor at MIT Technology Review, explores the issue in her latest piece.

“The problem is that the corporate agenda for AI has focused on techniques with commercial potential, largely ignoring research that could help address challenges like economic inequality and climate change. In fact, it has made these challenges worse ... Recommendation algorithms have exacerbated political polarization, while large language models have failed to clean up misinformation.”

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BEFORE YOU GO

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