The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has released its fifth annual “Who Has Your Back?” report, which grades various tech companies according to how well they're “protecting your data from government requests.”
The EFF is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that “champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation .... We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows.”
The “Who Has Your Back?” report essentially asks five yes-or-no questions about a given tech company, to determine if it “follows industry-accepted practices”; “tells users about government data demands”; “discloses policies on data retention”; “Discloses government content removal requests” and whether it has a “pro-user public policy: opposes backdoors.”
To be fair, given America's current legal climate, companies have to be graded “on the curve,” so to speak. For example: when it comes to telling users about government data demands, it's often illegal for companies to do so.
Consider the case of Yahoo (which got five out of five stars on the EFF's “Who Has Your Back” survey this year). Last September, Yahoo won what was then hailed as a “major court victory” – specifically, it finally won legal permission to admit that it had been spying on its own users, and giving the government massive amounts of their personal data, ever since 2008.
Had Yahoo not complied with the government's warrantless data demands, the company would've initially been fined $250,000 per day, with the amount set to double every week: $500,000 per day for the second week, $1 million a day for the third, then $2 million, then $4 million … enough to bankrupt the company in a matter of months.
There's also reason to suspect that Apple (another five-star company on the EFF report) has been secretly sharing data with the government — not because it wants to, but because it's facing legal blackmail similar to Yahoo's threatened crippling fines. Last September, around the same time Yahoo won the legal victory of being allowed to talk about what the government forces them to do, Apple released its third “Transparency Report.”
The company only started producing transparency reports in November 2013, and sharp-eyed observers noticed that the first such report contained a certain phrase which Apple's subsequent transparency reports omitted: “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”
Section 215, among other things, allowed the FBI to demand information about a person without showing probable cause or even reasonable grounds to believe that person was engaged in criminal activity. Section 215 also made it illegal for organizations to disclose the fact that they'd been required to hand over information.
And that's why various organizations ranging from local public libraries to multinational tech giants like Apple developed the habit of posting statements which are known as “warrant canaries”: statements claiming that the organization has not been forced to comply with a secret government data-grab coupled with a legal gag order. And if the “warrant canary” statement later disappears, that implies the opposite: “We have been helping the government collect information on people, but we're not allowed to talk about it.”
That's the legal climate under which the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been releasing “Who Has Your Back?” reports for the past five years. In addition to Apple and Yahoo, the other tech companies to get five stars this year were Adobe, Credo Mobile, Dropbox, Sonic.net, Wikimedia, and WordPress.com.
At the opposite extreme, EFF's two worst companies, rating only one star apiece, were AT&T; and WhatsApp.
Here is the complete list, as provided by EFF: