Apple has decided to publish details of data requests from the US authorities.
Apple is the latest tech firm to disclose the US government requests and said it received demands for information linked to between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices between December 2012 and the end of May 2013.
It said the demands included “national security matters” among other information. Microsoft and Facebook published similar numbers last week.
But Google and Twitter have said that such disclosures are not helpful.
“We have always believed that it’s important to differentiate between different types of government requests,” said a statement by Google published on Saturday.
“Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users.”
A tweet from Twitter’s legal director, Benjamin Lee, added: “We agree… it’s important to be able to publish numbers of national security requests – including FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] disclosures – separately.”
Apple has decided to publish details of data requests from the US authorities
Tech firms have been under pressure to disclose information about data passed to the National Security Agency (NSA) since The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers revealed the existence of PRISM – a programme giving the NSA access to user data held on the servers of tech firms including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, and Apple.
The NSA later confirmed the existence of the surveillance scheme as well as a separate phone records programme which it said had helped it thwart terrorist plots in the US and more than 20 other countries.
However, privacy activists and some politicians have raised concerns that the efforts went beyond what was intended under powers granted by the Patriot Act following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.
Following the revelations, several of the tech firms involved said they had asked the US government to allow them to disclose information which would help them address concern about the scale of information that had been handed over.
On Friday, Facebook and Microsoft announced they had been given permission to reveal the number of data requests from US officials in aggregate, and Apple has now followed with its own statement.
“We first heard of the government’s <<PRISM>> program when news organizations asked us about it on June 6,” it said.
“We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer content must get a court order.”
Facebook added that between 1 December 2012 and 31 May 2013 it received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from US law enforcement for customer data, involving between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices. It did not say with how many it had complied.
It said the “common form of request” came from police who were investigating crimes such as robberies, trying to find missing children and patients with Alzheimer’s disease, or hoping to prevent suicides.
It noted that it would not have been able to decode encrypted conversations which took place over its iMessage or Facetime chat software on behalf of the authorities, nor did it store “identifiable” data related to Apple Map searches or requests made to its voice-controlled Siri service.
“Regardless of the circumstances, our legal team conducts an evaluation of each request and, only if appropriate, we retrieve and deliver the narrowest possible set of information to the authorities,” it added.
Facebook revealed today that it received 9,000-10,000 requests for user data from US government entities in the second half of 2012.
The social-network said the requests, relating to between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts, covered issues from local crime to national security.
Microsoft meanwhile said it received 6,000 and 7,000 requests for data from between 31,000 and 32,000 accounts.
Leaks by former computer technician Edward Snowden suggest the US electronic surveillance programme is far larger than was known.
Internet companies – including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft – were reported last week to have granted the National Security Agency (NSA) “direct access” to their servers under a data collection programme called PRISM.
The firms denied the accusations, saying they gave no such access but did comply with lawful requests.
Several also called on the government to grant them permission to release data about the number of classified orders they received.
In an effort to reassure its users, Facebook lawyer Ted Ullyot wrote on the company’s blog that following discussions with the relevant authorities it could for the first time report all US national security-related requests for data.
“As of today, the government will only authorize us to communicate about these numbers in aggregate, and as a range,” he said.
Facebook revealed it received 9,000-10,000 requests for user data from US government entities in the second half of 2012
For the six months ending 31 December 2012, the total number of user-data requests Facebook received was between 9,000 and 10,000, relating to between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts.
“These requests run the gamut – from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat,” Ted Ullyot said.
“With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of 1% of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of US state, local, or federal US government request.”
Ted Ullyot did not indicate to what extent the company had fulfilled the requests, but said Facebook had “aggressively” protected its users’ data.
“We frequently reject such requests outright, or require the government to substantially scale down its requests, or simply give the government much less data than it has requested,” he said.
Later, Microsoft also published information about the volume of national security orders during the second half of 2012, stressing that they had an impact on only “a tiny fraction of Microsoft’s global customer base”.
While praising the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation for permitting the disclosures, Microsoft Vice-President John Frank called on them to “take further steps”.
“With more time, we hope they will take further steps. Transparency alone may not be enough to restore public confidence, but it’s a great place to start,” he wrote in a statement.
Earlier this month, Edward Snowden, a former employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and former CIA technical assistant, leaked details of the PRISM programme.
Edward Snowden, 29, fled the US to Hong Kong shortly before the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers published his revelations.
His whereabouts are unknown, and he has vowed to fight extradition to the US should the authorities attempt to prosecute him.