While protesting what it called a "gag order" from the U.S. government on what specific data federal authorities have asked it to turn over, Apple (AAPL) on Tuesday for the second time released a report outlining the requests it has received, if only in a broad-brush manner.
Apple released a similar report in June. And although the most recent document includes data demands from countries around the world from Jan. 1 to June 30, the U.S. numbers are so vague that it's impossible to figure out what they mean.
"At the time of this report, the U.S. government does not allow Apple to disclose, except in broad ranges, the number of national security orders, the number of accounts affected by the orders, or whether content, such as emails, was disclosed," Apple said in a statement accompanying the report.
Despite its efforts to loosen the "gag order" through meetings with the White House and congressional leaders, Apple said, "we do not yet have an agreement that we feel adequately addresses our customers' right to know how often and under what circumstances we provide data to law enforcement agencies."
Apple declined to comment further on the report.
While the numbers are more specific with non-U.S. cases -- Australian authorities, for example, made 71 requests, to which Apple turned over data in 41 cases -- the lion's share of demands came from the U.S. authorities.
The federal restrictions placed on Apple and other tech companies make it tough to discern precisely how many requests were made, the nature of the requests and how many of them resulted in turning over data.
For example, while Apple says the total number of U.S. law enforcement requests was between 1,000 and 2,000, the report says merely that the company released the requested data between "0 and 1,000" times.
Apple said the requests from U.S. authorities affected 2,000 to 3,000 user accounts. Apple also received 3,542 "device requests" from American law enforcement officials, which involved a total of 8,605 unique consumer devices. The company said it provided "some data" in 3,110 of those cases.
Suggesting that many of the requests concerned stolen iPhones, Apple said that "we've known that iOS devices are popular targets for thieves, and these numbers seem to bear that out." It added that "these types of requests frequently arise when our customers ask the police to assist them with a lost or stolen iPhone, or when law enforcement has recovered a shipment of stolen devices."
While reporting far fewer data requests than Google (GOOG) did, for example, Apple claims it's the only company that has reported numbers on devices involved, and it said it would keep up its campaign for more transparency when user account information is at stake.
Analyst Tim Bajarin with Creative Strategies says that CEO Tim Cook has gone out of his way to remind users that Apple's business "doesn't depend on collecting personal data" as other companies, such as Facebook, do.
"Steve Jobs was a big stickler for user security," Bajarin said. "So it doesn't surprise me that Apple has been in the forefront of resisting government intervention as much as possible. But a court order is a court order, and Apple still has to live within the context of existing laws."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc