Australian authorities clock 50% success rate in Apple data requests

Australian authorities' requests for user or device data from Apple are successful just over 50 percent of the time, according to data released today.

Apple handed over data about customers or their devices to Australian authorities slightly over 50 percent of the time in the first six months of 2013, according to its latest transparency report published by the Cupertino technology giant.

Apple said in releasing its report overnight that the vast majority of requests from law enforcement agencies regard lost or stolen devices such as iPods, iPhones, iPads, or Macs, which tend to fall under "device requests". In these cases, Apple is usually asked for customer contact information for the device, or the date the device was first activated or first used Apple's services.

The company said a small fraction of the requests that Apple receives relate to personal information taken from iTunes, iCloud, or Games Center accounts, which Apple classifies as "account requests".

Apple said it commonly receives account requests in relation to robberies, kidnappings, missing people, or from law enforcement officers seeking to prevent suicides, and that usually involves handing over account information such as names and addresses. Apple said that very few requests actually ask for content such as photos or emails.

While the US government has placed restrictions on the amount of information that Apple can release about US authorities' requests for data, Australia appears to have been much more relaxed in disclosing its own requests for information.

In the first six months of 2013, Australian authorities made 74 requests to Apple for account information for 75 accounts. Apple disclosed the data in 41 instances, and objected in 22 instances. Thirty four accounts had non-content data disclosed, while 40 accounts had no data disclosed at all. Australian authorities did not obtain any content from Apple user accounts in that period.

Australia was the fifth-highest requester of account data, after the US, the UK, Spain, and Germany, and Australian authorities had a 54 percent success rate.

As would be expected with the number of devices lost or stolen, the number of device requests was much higher. There were 1,178 device requests from Australian authorities to Apple in the first six months of 2013, accounting for 1,929 devices in total. Apple handed over data 59 percent of the time, for a total of 695 of the requests.

Australia was fourth highest in device requests, after the US, Germany, and Singapore.

The request for so-called metadata is something that law enforcement authorities in Australia have been particularly protective of over the last few years, culminating in a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year that saw agencies such as the Australian Federal Police push for the federal government to require Australian ISPs to keep customer metadata for up to two years. The report from that review did not make a recommendation on data retention, and the government at the time did not act on the recommendations of the report .

The new Coalition government has yet to decide on how it will respond to the report, but Attorney-General George Brandis has already indicated that national security will be a high priority in his portfolio.