Apple Boasts It Can No Longer Give Your Data to Police

Stephen Lam/Reuters

As people download iOS 8, Apple's new operating system, they'll notice some fun new features, like voice texting and a hands-free Siri. But Apple says there is a less noticeable change, which it seems to be proud of: It can no longer access your data.

Apple says your pass code, the four-digit number you use to log in to your device, can no longer be bypassed. The significance of this new development, the company says, is "it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8."

Christopher Soghoian, a principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the move, telling The New York Times, "The public has said they want companies to put their privacy first, and Apple has listened."

Apple's website breaks down the data requests it receives from law enforcement, explaining that the vast majority of data requests from police (93 percent) are done on behalf of customers trying to locate a stolen device. The other 7 percent of requests, however, are looking for information about a customer's iCloud or iTunes accounts, some requesting content such as emails or photos.

With this update, Apple is highlighting its inability to tap into your device if it is in the possession of law enforcement. But the company also notes that police warrants not issued on behalf of customers are for data related to customers' iCloud or iTunes accounts. Since the password protection does not hold true for iCloud or iTunes, Apple can still hand over data you have stored there.

The recent discussion of the theft of nude celebrity pictures from iCloud accounts showed that a disturbingly large portion of the public does not know what iCloud is, let alone how to use it. In a poll from 2012, for instance, 51 percent of responders thought "stormy weather" interfered with online cloud computing.

And the confusion remains. This month, the Daily Mail clarified for its readers that the iCloud is not an actual cloud. And, prior to the leaking of her pictures, Jennifer Lawrence showed her lack of iCloud understanding when she tweeted, "My iCloud keeps telling me to back it up, and I'm like, I don't know how to back you up. Do it yourself!"

Once an account is configured, iPhone data is automatically backed up onto iCloud. Following the photo leaks, some suggested users protect their data from hackers by just turning off the iCloud backup. The same method could be used to protect data from law enforcement access, but you run the risk of never seeing your data again if your device is lost.

Apple said that if it does receive a device request or account request from law enforcement, it will notify the customer when possible and "deliver the narrowest set of information possible in response"—whatever that means.

But for Apple's new privacy feature to be significant, consumers must be educated about the products they are using.