A new report from The Intercept reveals a caveat to Apple’s privacy policies surrounding text and iMessage communications. According to the report, while Apple’s end-to-end iMessage encryption precludes the company from being able to disclose the content of messages between iOS device users, the company does maintain a server-based log of phone numbers that users have attempted to communicate with via the Messages app. Numbers are added to these logs whenever an iMessage user enters a new phone number into the Messages app and Apple’s servers need to determine whether the message should be delivered to the recipient via its own iMessage service or using the carrier’s SMS text messaging services.
The report goes on to note that Apple can be compelled by court order to share this information with law enforcement agencies, as revealed by documents received from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Electronic Surveillance Support Team, which included a confidential document titled iMessage FAQ for Law Enforcement that provides guidance on how iMessage works and an example of what an agency would receive as a result of filing a court order for data from an iMessage account. The data sample reveals source phone numbers, data and time information, IP addresses where requests originated, and the numbers being looked up. Apple also adds a disclaimer stating that “These logs do not indicate that any communication took place,” as only queries for iMessage capabilities are being logged in this case. The Intercept was unable to gain additional information as to how often such iMessage queries may be made and logged beyond the initial contact attempt; for example it’s unclear whether opening or continuing an existing iMessage conversation will log information to Apple’s servers, or if this only occurs when a new number is entered into the Messages app.
An Apple spokesperson confirmed that the logging information in the FAQ is “generally accurate” but declined to elaborate further, with Apple providing the following statement:
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.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not return a request for comment by The Intercept.