Emails can be annoying. Even ignoring the constant promotions, endless spam and countless newsletters leaves you with an inbox full of people who need something from you. On the flip side, emailing someone a question often feels like shouting into the void. It’s a frustrating system, and so, according to Reuters this week, Apple is working on a way to handle data sharing requests from law enforcement that doesn’t involve good ol’ electronic mail.
Reuters reported seeing a letter from Apple general counsel Kate Adams to U.S. senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) discussing the new system. Adams reportedly said that Apple would offer an online tool allowing law enforcement officials to “make and track” data requests without resorting to email. The company also plans to introduce an online course to help train officials on how to request that data. The portal and training will both be available globally.
These efforts don’t appear to result from Apple’s inability to respond to official data requests. Adams reportedly said in the letter that Apple responded to 14,000 official data requests last year, with 231 of them being “domestic emergency requests,” to which it responded “regardless of the time of day or night” and usually within 20 minutes of receiving the request. (Meanwhile, we can’t step up to the so-called Genius Bar without having to wait for an hour.)
Instead, the development of this system mostly seems like an olive branch from Apple to law enforcement officials. Relationships between the two–and between tech companies and government agencies writ large–have become increasingly strained as tech products become more secure. Companies like Apple see security as effective marketing tools; law enforcement and intelligence agencies see them as obstructions of justice.
That’s why agencies from around the world, especially within the Five Eyes international intelligence alliance, have pushed back against the popularization of encryption tools. Law enforcement needs access to personal data to conduct investigations, but companies that fail to secure their customers’ information are often lambasted. The result is a seemingly endless tug-of-war between defending privacy and helping with criminal investigations.
This new portal doesn’t appear to be meant to increase the amount of data Apple provides law enforcement. The company hasn’t granted the government access to more information (at least not in the U.S.) and doesn’t appear to have changed its criteria for what it considers a valid data request. It’s simply making it easier for law enforcement to learn those criteria and submit those requests with a more convenient system.