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Apple is Able to Keep Track of Who You're Chatting With Using iMessage

When compelled with a court order, Apple could share the information with law enforcement
Apple's Software
September 28, 2016

Apple’s iMessage system is completely end-to-end encrypted meaning no third party can even read what you discussing. But a new report from The Intercept says that Apple can keep track of who you’re conversing with using the platform, and will share the information with law enforcement if compelled by a court order.

Who, not what

Who, not what

The information was contained in a set of documents obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Electronic Surveillance Support Team. An Apple spokesperson said the information was “generally accurate,” but refused to directly comment.

Here’s more from the report:

Every time you type a number into your iPhone for a text conversation, the Messages app contacts Apple servers to determine whether to route a given message over the ubiquitous SMS system, represented in the app by those déclassé green text bubbles, or over Apple’s proprietary and more secure messaging network, represented by pleasant blue bubbles, according to the document. Apple records each query in which your phone calls home to see who’s in the iMessage system and who’s not.

This log also includes the date and time when you entered a number, along with your IP address — which could, contrary to a 2013 Apple claim that “we do not store data related to customers’ location,” identify a customer’s location. Apple is compelled to turn over such information via court orders for systems known as “pen registers” or “trap and trace devices,” orders that are not particularly onerous to obtain, requiring only that government lawyers represent they are “likely” to obtain information whose “use is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.” Apple confirmed to The Intercept that it only retains these logs for a period of 30 days, though court orders of this kind can typically be extended in additional 30-day periods, meaning a series of monthlong log snapshots from Apple could be strung together by police to create a longer list of whose numbers someone has been entering.

What Apple says

What Apple says

Apple provided a statement to the site:

When law enforcement presents us with a valid subpoena or court order, we provide the requested information if it is in our possession. Because iMessage is encrypted end-to-end, we do not have access to the contents of those communications. In some cases, we are able to provide data from server logs that are generated from customers accessing certain apps on their devices. We work closely with law enforcement to help them understand what we can provide and make clear these query logs don’t contain the contents of conversations or prove that any communication actually took place.

Earlier this year, Apple’s Eddy Cue said that at its peak, more than 200,000 iMessages are sent every second. And that number undoubtedly continues to grow. With iOS 10, Apple added a number of new features to the Message app, including its own dedicated App Store.