Apple's fight with law enforcement has stepped up again, with the iPhone giant forced to deny that it hands over user information to Beijing while refusing the authorities at home.
Speaking at a hearing of US House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Apple's general counsel Bruce Sewell said that the Chinese authorities had asked the company to hand over its source code "within the last two years," but Apple had refused.
The response was driven by the latest line of attack by US law enforcement on Apple: implying that it helps out Beijing where it won't help out Washington.
As with many of the arguments pushed by the FBI in recent months, however, when challenged it appeared to fall apart.
When another witness – a top cop from Indiana, Charles Cohen – pushed the talking point, he got an angry rebuke from Silicon Valley representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who asked him where he was getting his information from. News reports, he said.
"That takes my breath away," she responded. "That is a huge allegation."
Meanwhile, New York Police Department (NYPD) intelligence head Thomas Galati continued to push on the fact that it remains unable to get into a significant number of iPhones (67, in fact) because of Apple's encryption software and its refusal to find a way to bypass the security to hand over unencrypted phone data.
The same arguments that have played out repeatedly in public since the FBI was granted a court order to force Apple to open the phone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook – and Apple refused to honor it – were visible again.
Galati pointed out that the phones he wanted access to could yield valuable information in serious crimes, including violent crime, deaths and rapes.
Technical experts meanwhile made the same point about encryption that they have also been making for months: that if you create a hole in the security, it will open all phones to potential hackers.
Little or no progress was made on finding a solution to the problem, although many believe a solution will have to be arrived at, and it will likely come from Congress and the very politicians that were at the hearing.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Apple published its latest transparency report [PDF] covering July 1 to December 31, 2015.
In it, it claims that it handed over information in 80 per cent of requests originating from law enforcement in North America (that went down to 52 per cent in Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa). In China, 66 per cent of requests were met with information.
With the extraordinary exception of Germany – which made an incredible 12,000 requests for over 30,000 devices in the last six months of 2015, the United States is the largest requester of information from Apple, seeking information 4,000 times over 16,000 devices.
- Australia with 3,004 requests
- The UK with 1,969
- Singapore with 1,936
- France with 1,610
- Spain with 1,196
- China in eighth place with 1,005 requests covering 2,413 devices
In addition to those requests, Apple also received between 1,250 and 1,499 national security orders from the US government, which includes orders made under the secretive FISA court and equally secretive National Security Letters.
The company goes into no details over what those requests covered, although it did not say that they were not for bulk data. ®