Apple and Microsoft Say They Had No Idea Trump-Era DOJ Requested Data on Political Rivals

Department of Justice podium.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski (Getty Images)

Apple didn’t know the Department of Justice was requesting metadata of Democratic lawmakers when it complied with a subpoena during a Trump-era leak investigation, CNBC reports. Apple wasn’t the only tech giant tapped in these probes: Microsoft received a similar subpoena for a congressional staffer’s personal email account, it confirmed Friday. Both companies were under DOJ gag orders preventing them from notifying the affected users for years.

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These instances are part of a growing list of questionable shit the DOJ carried out under former President Donald Trump amid his crusade to crack down on government leakers. The agency also quietly went after phone and email records of journalists at the Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times to uncover their sources, none of whom were notified until last month.

On Thursday, a New York Times report revealed that a Trump-led DOJ seized records from two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who were frequently targeted in the president’s tantrums: California Representatives Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff (Schiff now chairs the committee). The subpoena extended to at least a dozen people connected to them, including aides, family members, and one minor, in an attempt to identify sources related to news reports on Trump’s contacts with Russia. All told, prosecutors found zero evidence in this seized data, but their efforts have prompted the Justice Department’s inspector general to launch an inquiry into the agency’s handling of leak investigations during the Trump administration.

Apple told CNBC it received a subpoena from a federal grand jury on Feb. 6, 2018. The DOJ requested metadata for a seemingly random group of 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses and provided “no information” about the nature of the investigation, Apple told TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker. The company provided the outlet with the following statement:

“We regularly challenge warrants, subpoenas and nondisclosure orders and have made it our policy to inform affected customers of governmental requests about them just as soon as possible. In this case, the subpoena, which was issued by a federal grand jury and included a nondisclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge, provided no information on the nature of the investigation and it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts. Consistent with the request, Apple limited the information it provided to account subscriber information and did not provide any content such as emails or pictures.”

A non-disclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge prevented Apple from notifying the affected users until the gag order was lifted on May 5, CNBC reports. Due to the nature of the subpoena, Apple added that it believed other tech companies received similar orders.

Microsoft confirmed as much to the outlet on Friday. The company said it received a DOJ subpoena related to a personal email account in 2017, but due to a gag order, it was unable to notify the affected user for more than two years. Once the gag order was lifted, Microsoft contacted the user and learned they were a congressional staffer. Moving forward, the company said it will “continue to aggressively seek reform that imposes reasonable limits on government secrecy in cases like this.”

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You can read Microsoft’s statement in full below:

“In 2017 Microsoft received a subpoena related to a personal email account. As we’ve said before, we believe customers have a constitutional right to know when the government requests their email or documents, and we have a right to tell them. In this case, we were prevented from notifying the customer for more than two years because of a gag order. As soon as the gag order expired, we notified the customer who told us they were a congressional staffer. We then provided a briefing to the representative’s staff following that notice. We will continue to aggressively seek reform that imposes reasonable limits on government secrecy in cases like this.”

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Over the years, administrations from both sides of the aisle have subpoenaed journalist records as part of leak investigations. However, it’s virtually unheard of for the records of lawmakers to be seized in these investigations, current and former congressional officials familiar with the matter told the Times this week.

Media outlets and lawmakers have put the previous administration and DOJ on blast in the wake of these revelations. In a Friday statement, Swalwell, whose data had been sought, strongly condemned the former president:

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“Like many of the world’s most despicable dictators, former President Trump showed an utter disdain for our democracy and the rule of law.”

Last week, the DOJ promised to stop quietly seizing journalists’ records in leak investigations moving forward.

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DOJ Forced Apple to Reveal Data from Two House Democrats as Part of Trump’s Leaker Crusade

Illustration for article titled DOJ Forced Apple to Reveal Data from Two House Democrats as Part of Trump's Leaker Crusade

Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

It recently came to light that the Trump-era Department of Justice quietly seized phone records of journalists at the Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times to suss out their sources as part of the administration’s rabid crackdown on leakers. Well, apparently the witch hunt didn’t stop there: In 2017 and 2018, a grand jury compelled Apple to fork over metadata from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, according to a Thursday report from the New York Times.

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The subpoena also covered records from at least a dozen people connected to the committee members, including aides, family members, and one minor. Records of Representative Adam Schiff of California, committee chairman and a frequent target of Trump’s playground insults, were among those seized, sources familiar with the matter told the Times.

Apple provided the agency with metadata and account information, but did not share photos, emails, or other content, a person familiar with the inquiry told the Times. But that’s hardly a comfort given the well-demonstrated fact that you can still learn a shit ton about a person from their metadata—where they are, what they’re up to—especially when combined with publicly available info such as their social media posts.

All told, prosecutors found no evidence within the seized data that tied the committee members to leakers. Apple was under a gag order from the DOJ that prohibited the company from publicly discussing the matter, according to the Times. That order expired this year, at which point Apple contacted the committee members, who purportedly did not know they were even being investigated. The Post, Times, and CNN similarly had no clue their reporters had been under federal investigation until the DOJ notified each outlet in recent weeks.

Over the years, administrations from both sides of the aisle have relied on court orders to obtain journalists’ records as part of leak investigations. Even still, current and former congressional officials familiar with the inquiry told the Times that they could not recall an instance in which the records of lawmakers were also seized in these cases.

In the wake of the report, Schiff called for the Inspector General to investigate Trump’s “weaponization of law enforcement” in what he denounced as a “terrible abuse of power.”

“It also makes the Department of Justice just a fully owned subsidiary of the president’s personal legal interests and political interests,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Thursday.

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The DOJ promised to stop secretly obtaining the records of journalists on Saturday after coming under fire from media outlets, lawmakers, and President Joe Biden, who condemned the practice as “simply, simply wrong” in response to the agency’s latest disclosures.