National security letters (NSL) are a form of subpoena for communications data sent to service providers and are typically accompanied by a gag order. While not requiring a warrant, they imply that the target being surveyed is unaware of their records being accessed by the government.
Apple Inc has reported that it has received more than four times as many national-security related requests from the U.S. government in the first half of this year versus a year ago.
The tech giant said it has received between 13,250 and 13,499 national security requests affecting between 9,000 and 9,249 users. In comparison, during the first half of 2016, it had received such requests in the range of 2,750 and 2,999 which affected between 2,000 and 2,249 users.
The requests come in the form of National Security Letters, (NSL); requests also come under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Companies, including Apple, report ranges since government rules prevent them from disclosing precise numbers.
Apple declined to comment beyond the figures it released.
These disclosures are voluntary.
Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp are yet to report any figures for 2017.
Previously, these companies had given a breakup between FISA and NSL requests in their reports.
The U.S. government requires that they wait six months before reports are disclosed for public consumption.
Google has disclosed it had received between 0 and 499 National Security Letters requesting information on between 1,000 and 1,499 user accounts in the first half of 2017, in comparison in the previous year for the same period it had received between the same number of requests but they were limited to 500 to 999 accounts.
Google’s FISA 2017 request numbers were not available.
It isn’t immediately clear what drove up the number of requests in Apple.
As per Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the number of government requests to technology companies has been increasing since 2014, when data first started to become available as part of a settlement between technology firms and the government.
“There’s not a huge track record here, but you can start to make a simple graph. The trend does seem to be upward,” said Crocker.
Significantly, Croker mentioned that the higher number of requests to Apple could represent it coming in line with its peers: while Apple user base is is more than 1.2 billion, the number of requests to it had been relatively low compared with those received by Google or Microsoft.