Why Was Apple Late To The PRISM Party?


If there’s one striking thing about those PRISM slides, other than their hideous aesthetics, it’s that Apple’s allocated yellow oval, instead of a date, has the words “(added Oct 2012)” underneath it. That difference is most striking when you consider the fact that Apple competitor Microsoft cooperated with the government a full five years earlier.

The company, which denies ever having heard of PRISM, released its FISA request numbers today, starting on December 1st, 2012, through this May 2013. Though it’s plausible that the government would not have disclosed the name of the program, the NYT confirmed Apple’s participation in a government surveillance network designed to make data collection more efficient for the NSA — whatever that entails, like “a broad sweep for intelligence, like logs of certain search terms.”

From Claire Cain Miller’s article:

While handing over data in response to a legitimate FISA request is a legal requirement, making it easier for the government to get the information is not, which is why Twitter could decline to do so.

The October 2012 date is notable as coming a year after the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Perhaps, because it is an interesting coincidence, it’s led to speculation that Steve Jobs resisted systematic data collection from the NSA until his death. That statement was echoed on the record by NeXt developer Andrew Stone, who told Cult of Mac, “Steve Jobs would’ve rather died than give into that, even though he had a lot of friends at the NSA. Microsoft caved in first, then everyone else. Steve would’ve just never done it.”

The speculation, which I’ve heard from a couple of sources, has grounds. NeXT was publicly a vendor for the NSA and many other security agencies, and Jobs had many contacts at the agency who perhaps had offered him immunity. It could be that his connections, Apple’s brand popularity or straight-up his legend allowed him to escape Microsoft’s, which had been embroiled in a series of antitrust cases up until then, or Yahoo’s fates.

All of these explanations make sense, though it could be something like the Twitter loophole that caused Apple’s tardiness. In Twitter’s case most of its data is public, so it’s not that big of a loss to the NSA until it becomes more of a communication node. Perhaps only recently did Apple collect the kinds of data the government would want, like the metadata around iMessage, which, though encrypted, doesn’t pass the “mud puddle” test.

We will likely never know what Jobs did in those last few years as PRISM loomed ever larger, but whatever he did it looks like he held out as long as he could. The image of Steve Jobs playing chicken with Uncle Sam fits right into his myth. Even if it is just a myth.


[Prism photo by Adam Hart-Davis]