Better late than never: Apple’s reluctant entry to the surveillance debate and what it means

Big U.S. tech companies are unhappy to be at the center of an ongoing controversy over privacy and spying, in which governments have been using the companies as ciphers to monitor the communications of their citizens.

Google(s goog) has been calling attention to the issue for years by publishing so-called “transparency reports” that show how often governments demand user data and why. Other companies, including Yahoo(s yhoo) and Microsoft(s msft), have followed suit and a number of them are in a heated legal battle before America’s secret spy court.

Until now, Apple(s aapl) has stayed out of it. But on Monday, the iPhone maker published an unprecedented report decrying the government’s use of gag orders that prevent companies from disclosing the number of security security requests they receive. Apple also revealed that it’s filed briefs in support of various Constitutional court challenges, and published two charts showing information requests.

While civil libertarians will welcome Apple’s arrival to the surveillance debate, the company’s contribution feels half-hearted and politicized. This is most apparent in repeated remarks that Apple’s business does not depend on collecting personal data — an obvious dig at Google. (It’s also worth noting that Apple, unlike others, declined to call its document a “transparency report”).

Apple also made curious choices in what published, including a chart about “device requests.” These set of figures primarily represent customer requests about stolen iPhones and iPads, and is largely a red herring because such information is not that relevant to the debate over surveillance. To its credit, though, Apple does disclose how many “account requests” it receives (information that can cover users’ photos, email and more) even though it is not, as it states, as data-reliant as some of its tech rivals.

Finally, Apple makes the observation that “dialogue and advocacy are the most productive way to bring about a change in these policies, rather than filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government” — which comes across as a snide dig against the companies (including Google and Microsoft) that have filed important First Amendment legal challenges over the right to discuss surveillance.

The bottom line is that Apple, a secretive company, has taken an unprecedented and important stance on surveillance; it’s too bad that it had to dilute that stance with petty tech-industry politics (and, in this, it’s hardly the only one).

Here’s the report with some key stuff underlined:

Apple gov’t request report.pdf

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