Apple, Comcast, MySpace, Skype and Verizon flunked a recent report that looked at how companies respond to government requests for users’ private data, calling into question current standards for consumer privacy online.
Digital rights activist group Electronic Frontier Foundation recently examined twelve different companies, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft, among others, looking at how they responded to government requests for user data.
The report measured whether companies told users about data requests and were generally transparent about government demands, and whether they fought in courts and Congress for users’ privacy rights.
Apple, Comcast, and the others who failed used fuzzy language in their terms of service, allowing them to give the government user data without notice. None of those companies have joined Digital Due Process, a lobbying group working for users’ privacy protection and clearer government policies.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and AT&T are all members of Digital Due Process; they also scored higher on the EFF’s test.
Apple’s customers especially may be more vulnerable to having their mobile devices tracked by the government. The company’s privacy statement reads, “We may also disclose information about you if we determine that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate.”
The word “appropriate,” as Rainey Reitman of EFF points out, leaves Apple plenty of wiggle room when handing over data to the government.
“Increasingly, companies are competing on privacy to show themselves to be more trustworthy than other services,” says Rainey. “I’m quite surprised that Apple hasn’t prioritized user rights more in their business model.”
Twitter and Google came out looking the best in this survey: the former fought in court for the right to inform users when it must hand over account information, as in the case of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and his four associates. Google has a public Transparency Report site that tracks and maps governmental data requests.
The EFF’s report highlights the fact that no consumer-protection regulations yet exist around pulling emails, instant messages, or other data like real-time location. Other telecommunications like phones are covered — agencies must legally report phone wiretaps, for instance — but it’s currently up to Internet companies whether they tell users about data-pulling.
Despite recent moves like introducing an online privacy bill, which focuses more on companies’ use of consumers’ private information rather than government access to that data, Congress hasn’t really looked at reforming this situation; until then, users are at the mercy of Apple and others regarding the protection of their privacy.