I have been an ardent Apple fan since 1993, when I got my first Mac: a PowerBook Duo 210. From then, to the day I joined Apple in 1996, to the day I left in 2002, to present day, one thing has always been true about Apple: they are not a typical tech company. Pushing against the status quo has in many respects been a defining characteristic of the company, through down times and up times. Apple does what it thinks is right for itself, for its customers, and to some significant extent, for the world at large.
Tim Cook shared yesterday in A Message to Our Customers one example of Apple’s atypical attitude rearing its beautiful head. In response to the FBI’s demand that Apple supply custom software that would allow the agency to unlock an iPhone held as evidence, Apple tendered its refusal:
Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
The news has split public sentiment in predictable ways. There will always be a contingent that believes law enforcement should be aided in any feasible manner, regardless of long-term implications for individual privacy or civil liberties. And there will also be people so cynical about government and the police, that even Apple’s cooperation thus far, handing over information that it does possess, is viewed as a betrayal of customer rights. And of course, there is a massive group of folks in the middle, who aren’t sure where the line should be drawn.
Apple has a clear sense of where the line should be drawn, and they have stated it: they will not weaken the security of their products for the benefit of the FBI or (presumably) any other agency. Although the current request from the FBI only applies to an older iPhone model, whose security is easier to circumvent than later ones, the point Apple emphasizes is that complying with the order would be a terrible precedent for putting the needs of government ahead of the personal security of end-uers.
To my mind, this is a fine place for Apple to draw a line.
Other tech companies with huge investments in the consumer market should be lining up behind Apple in defiance of the FBI. To do otherwise, whether by explicitly defending the FBI’s demands, or by implicitly approving in silence, would be a betrayal of their own customers. It would be wrong both from an ethical perspective with respect to their duty to protect customer data, and from a PR perspective with respect to the public’s perception of their managing that duty.
If a couple other large companies, say Facebook and Google, come to Apple’s side, it will send a powerful message to the FBI and the rest of government. If a dozen large companies do, it will create a firewall that will be difficult for government to dismantle without very publicly reiterating and reaffirming its disdain for personal privacy.
I think it’s best for all parties if the “firewall” scenario comes to pass. The stage is set for a civil rights showdown, and while we need to speak out as individuals, we can also benefit enormously from the powerful voices of these tech giants.
But if other companies don’t step up, I’m not sure all is lost. Apple, as the largest American tech company, which also has the largest cash reserves, is well-suited on many fronts to fight this battle. Alone, if necessary.
People have criticized Apple for amassing a giant pile of money while never giving completely convincing explanations for what it plans to do with it. When your modus operandi is not only to push the leading edge of personal technology, but also to defend your customers’ personal data, and to possibly help establish the legal precedent that will defend the customers of all tech companies for decades to come, you never know when having $200B to “spare” might come in handy.
As a stockholder I don’t relish the idea of Apple burning through all that money just to defend their right to protect customer data. Although it’s arguable that it would be money well spent, it’s not an obvious, ideal use of shareholder equity in a public company. Luckily, I don’t think the cash will be spent. The $200B serves mainly to fortify Apple’s resolve in defying the FBI. Apple’s courage in the face of threats to its pro-consumer security policies is bolstered by the strength of those massive cash reserves.
Some may see this confrontation between Apple and the FBI as an industry vs. government dispute, but it’s far more than that. As personal technology and the internet permeate almost every aspect of wider society, the “tech industry” is indistinguishable from society as a whole. The right to defend our personal information, and the rights of companies to act on our behalf in that pursuit, are completely and inexorably tied to our rights as members of society. Eventually, we must win the right to protect our data from government. Apple, Google, Facebook, and other tech giants can step up to help us secure these rights today, or we’ll have a longer, harder fight ahead of us in years to come.