In its recently revised Legal Process Guidelines, Apple outlines what data it can extract from your locked iPhone or iPad in the event law enforcement has a subpoena for that information. While the document is meant for law enforcement entities, we thought you’d like to know what information on your device might be legally accessible by the government.
Let’s start with what Apple cannot share with the police, even if they wanted to, due mainly to technical limitations:
- Deleted content from iCloud, including emails
- Find My iPhone tracking data except user-initiated requests to locate or lock devices.
- iMessage history
- Calendar entries
- Non-Apple app data
The main reason Apple can’t tell the police every place you’ve ever been by utilizing Find My iPhone is because Apple does not keep those records. Your phone doesn’t, either. Likewise, iMessages are encrypted end-to-end, meaning only the intended recipients can access the data in a way that is usable. Third-party apps could probably be accessed in some cases, but it is too hit or miss for Apple to make any promises or waste any time trying to figure it out.
The following things are fair game if law enforcement shows up at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters with a subpoena:
- SMS text messages
- Audio recordings
- Call history
- Information regarding location and timing of any Find My iPhone activity
- All iCloud content
- Device and iTunes Store registration information
- Apple Retail and Online Store transactions
- Apple Retail Store surveillance footage
Note that some of this data requires no actual device at all and can be accessed with an applicable search warrant.
While the amount of data that is potentially accessible is fairly discomforting, Apple does at least employ a fairly rigorous process to prevent fraud. None of these requests are processed electronically; no amount of technological innovation can make Apple trust court orders sent over the Internet.
If you want the user’s data, you must bring your court order or equivalent document, the device(s) in question, and an external hard drive with FireWire connection to take that data home. I am especially appreciative that Apple tests law enforcement’s commitment by making them buy an external drive that uses Apple’s arcane FireWire connection rather than USB or even their new, inexplicably
proprietary not widely implemented Thunderbolt.
In certain cases, Apple allows law enforcement to complete the process using physical mail.
Unfortunately, the closed nature of iOS makes it difficult to recommend replacement apps or measures you can take to protect yourself from data seizure. The best course of action is to keep sensitive data off the cloud and, perhaps, off your iPhone or iPad entirely. Email and iMessage communications are secure, however, which is a good thing.