The same week that Apple released iOS 8, the newest version of the company's mobile operating system, the tech giant did something out of character: It ceded power.
In a move in tune with the contemporary current of privacy concerns, riding the wake of more than a year of mass surveillance revelations, Apple announced on September 18 that encryption technology on iOS 8 would make it impossible for the company to hand over data from iPhones and iPads endowed with the operating system.
It's a smart, user-pleasing move by the tech firm — but it's no huge needle in Big Brother's eye. Data stored in the iCloud remains accessible to Apple and thus accessible to police and government requests. We have not, therefore, seen the last celebrity nude photo hack — on this we can rely. Using Apple's new system, then, the onus is on the user to ensure that any data he or she wishes to protect must be blocked from transference to the iCloud, which tends to happen automatically without a savvy user altering a device's settings.
And herein lies the real canniness undergirding Apple's latest privacy move — the company has in fact protected itself from having to face law enforcement data requests. It's a burden no doubt happily forgone: The latest Google Transparency report, which enumerates government requests for user data, reveals that requests from the US government increased 250 percent over the last five years. When it comes to new iPhones and iPads, then, Apple can hold up its hands to data demands and thank the cryptography gods.
The tech giant's gesture to privacy is a smart one for a corporation with something to gain by responding to user concerns about their data.
The user then must be the focus of interrogation, as only he or she has access to the device's passcode. As such, the police would still be able to make data requests, but directly to the user — certainly an improvement on the opaque private information exchanges that have helped build the current corporate-government surveillance nexus.
Apple's new encryption methodology is not necessarily new. Kim Dotcom has claimed immunity from law enforcement demands about illegal file sharing on his most recent file-share venture, Mega, since users, not the site operator, hold both the encryption and decryption keys.
Apple should be commended for endowing users with the ability to protect their data. But this kernel of privacy comes the same very week the FBI announced a vast and sprawling biometrics surveillance apparatus, from which none of us are exempted. This is no great time for privacy. It's simply an ideal moment for Apple to play the privacy card and take itself off the hook in the face of ever-growing government and police interest in our private data.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard