Apple said Wednesday night that it is making it impossible for the company to turn over data from most iPhones or iPads to police — even when they have a search warrant — taking a hard new line as tech companies attempt to blunt allegations that they have too readily participated in government efforts to collect user data.
The key is the encryption that Apple mobile devices automatically put in place when a user selects a passcode, making it difficult for anyone who lacks that passcode to access the information within, including photos, e-mails, and recordings. Apple once kept possession of encryption keys that unlocked devices for legally binding police requests, but will no longer do so for iOS 8, it said in a new guide for law enforcement.
‘‘Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data,’’ Apple said on its website. ‘‘So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”
As the new operating system becomes widely deployed over the next several weeks, the number of iPhones and iPads that Apple is capable of breaking into for police will steadily dwindle to the point when only devices several years old — and incapable of running iOS 8 — can be cracked by Apple.
Apple will still have the ability — and the legal responsibility — to turn over user data stored elsewhere, such as in its iCloud service, which typically includes backups of photos, videos, e-mail communications, music collections, and more. Users who want to prevent all forms of police access to their information will have to adjust settings in a way that blocks data from flowing to iCloud.
Apple’s action comes less than five months after the Supreme Court ruled that police in most circumstances need a search warrant to collect to information stored on phones. Apple’s action makes that distinction largely moot by depriving itself of the power to comply with search warrants for the contents of many of the phones it sells.
The move is the latest in a series in which Apple has sought to distinguish itself from competitors through more rigorous security.
Though the company’s security took a publicity hit with the leak of intimate photos of celebrities from their Apple accounts in recent weeks, the move to block police access to the latest iPhones and iPads will thrill privacy activists and frustrate law enforcement officials, who have come to rely on the extensive evidence often found on personal electronic devices.