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.
That Apple has to run a lookup to see whether to send a message securely using Messages or insecurely using SMS isn’t surprising. And the 30 day retention period is likely to help iron out bugs associated with operating a global messaging system: when things go wonky (and they do…) engineers need some kind of data to troubleshoot what’s going on.
Importantly, Apple is not logging communications. Nor is it recording if you communicate with someone who is assigned a particular phone number. All that is retained is the lookup itself. So if you ever type in a wrong number that lookup is recorded, regardless of whether you communicate with whomever holds the number.
More troubling is the fact that Apple does not disclose this information when an individual formally requests copies of all their personal information that Apple retains about them. These lookups arguably constitute personal information, and information like IP addresses etc certainly constitute this information under Canadian law.
Apple, along with other tech companies, ought to release their lawful access guides so that users know and understand what information is accessible to authorities and under what terms. It isn’t enough to just disclose how often such requests are received and complied with: customers should be able to evaluate the terms under which Apple asserts it will, or will not, disclose that information in the first place.