A New York Times piece revealed on Friday just how easy it was for former President Donald Trump’s administration to get top technology companies to supply data regarding congressional Democrats. In short, getting the data was so easy it’s scary. Apple told The New York Times when a gag order expired that the newspaper received a grand jury subpoena on Feb. 6, 2018 that, although didn’t seem out of the ordinary, was a request for data regarding at least two Democratic members of Congress as well as congressional workers and their families. One of those legislators was Rep. Adam Schiff, the “top Democrat” in the House Intelligence Committee at the time, the Times reported. The other was Rep. Eric Swalwell, another member of the intelligence committee.
The subpoena, which asked for phone records and names linked to 109 email addresses and phone numbers, was part of the Trump administration’s investigation into “leaks of classified information,” the Times reported. Apple’s involvement in yet another privacy related scandal isn’t exactly helping the company stay clear of an already fiery battle regarding the Trump administration’s virtual war against journalists, more specifically to uncover sources in news articles.
Following the expired gag order, Apple also told Donald McGahn II, Trump’s White House counsel, and his wife last month that the Justice Department subpoenaed information about his account in February 2018, The New York Times reported on Sunday. Reporters Michael Schmidt and Charlie Savage called the “disclosure that agents secretly collected data of a sitting White House” attorney “striking.” “The president’s top lawyer is also a chief point of contact between the White House and the Justice Department,” the reporters wrote. admitted that it’s still unclear why the subpoena was obtained but a “roughly concurrent event” was that Trump “had become angry at Mr. McGahn over a matter related to the Russia investigation, and that included a leak.”
The takeaway seems to be: If you want assurance that your data doesn’t end up in the hands of law enforcement or government officials, there isn’t any. But your best bet is to contract with one of the technology companies supplying the data. Google was served a gag order and subpoena to hand over data from the emails of four New York Times reporters, but because of the company’s contract with the Times, Google had an out of sorts, Ted Boutrous, an attorney for the newspaper told the Times.
While Google claimed it doesn’t generally respond differently to requests for information based on the type of relationship it has with its customers, data The New York Times obtained suggests otherwise. Google turned over data in 83% of almost 40,000 government requests issued the first half of last year, but that number shrunk to 39% regarding the 398 Google customers who were also corporate clients of the company.
Both Apple and Microsoft told CNN they informed customers about government subpoenas as soon as they could legally. Microsoft released this statement to CNN after receiving a subpoena for a congressional staff member:
“In 2017 Microsoft received a subpoena related to a personal email account. As we’ve said before, we believe customers have a constitutional right to know when the government requests their email or documents, and we have a right to tell them. In this case, we were prevented from notifying the customer for more than two years because of a gag order. As soon as the gag order expired, we notified the customer who told us they were a congressional staffer. We then provided a briefing to the representative’s staff following that notice. We will continue to aggressively seek reform that imposes reasonable limits on government secrecy in cases like this.”
Apple spokesman Fred Sainz told CNN in a statement:
“In this case, the subpoena, which was issued by a federal grand jury and included a nondisclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge, provided no information on the nature of the investigation, and it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts. Consistent with the request, Apple limited the information it provided to account subscriber information and did not provide any content such as emails or pictures.”
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced on Friday that the department would review the “DOJ’s use of subpoenas” and “other legal authorities to obtain communication records of Members of congress and affiliated persons, and the news media.” “The review will examine the Department’s compliance with applicable DOJ policies and procedures, and whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations,” the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said in a news release. “If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider other issues that may arise during the review.”