Apple CEO Tim Cook has mounted the fiercest argument explaining why Apple is opposed to an FBI order to open the iPhone used by San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook.
Cook has already explained Apple’s stance in detail on two occasions — in a letter to customers and an internal note to staff which was made public — and numerous tech figures have added their support, but, in the wake of FBI Director James Comey denying that the ultimate goal is a backdoora Pew poll suggesting that the majority of Americans believe Apple should follow the order, he has now made the iPhone maker’s stance on the matter crystal clear.
In an exclusive interview with ABC’s David Muir, Cook described his fear that enabling backdoor access to the iPhone — which he described as “the software equivalent of cancer” — would set a dangerous precedent for the future that risks both the privacy and “public safety” of hundreds of millions of Apple customers worldwide.
“We have no sympathy for terrorists,” Cook said. “In my view they left their rights when they decided to do awful things… We’re not protecting their privacy, we’re protecting the rights… and public safety of everyone else.
“[Creating software to access data locked on the iPhone] exposes everyone else. Developing that software, it’s so powerful it has the capability to unlock other iPhones. That is the issue.”
Cook said he has received thousands of emails in support of Apple’s stance, with the “largest single category” of voices coming from American service men and women who “fight for our freedom.” That, Cook said, is telling of the potential to create a key that could be used to violate public safety by potentially exposing the intimate and private information that people keep on their phone — such as bank details, relationships, and the location of children.
A Master Key Isn’t Safe
Public figures including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Presidential candidate Donald Trump have come forward to argue that national security and terrorism are the right grounds for Apple to agree to open the iPhone in question, but Cook stressed that it is the future implications of such a move that terrify him and Apple.
“[A] master key to turn 100 million locks, even if in the possession of a person you trust, could be stolen,” the Apple CEO explained. “You can imagine the target on that piece. I’m not saying [that] the government would abuse it, but there are lots of bad guys in the world. Millions of people have [already] had their personal information stolen by hackers.”
Apple has previously said that it has provided the FBI with all the information in its possession, and Cook reiterated that, adding that the company is working as best it can to add to that pile — without opening the phone. Regarding additional data that might be contained on the iPhone, the Apple CEO pointed out that the FBI could go to telecom operators and others for information about calls made and messages sent across the cellular network. The data ball isn’t just in Apple’s court, so to speak.
Cook also took time to voice his concern on the manner in which the FBI has gone about the issue, which included authorities changing the device’s passcode, thereby locking data on the device. Claiming that the first Apple heard of the order was via media reports, he pointed out this order could open the floor for other U.S. states to apply for similar ‘backdoors’ which would not only increase the risk of bad operators accessing such software, but would make the aforementioned data on individuals’ devices effectively available on order for courts and judges. Beyond that, he added, there’s no reason that similar requests couldn’t be made to other phone companies — a situation that he believes would be disastrous for the population.
The debate is currently playing out in public and, while Cook acknowledged that there are positives to “having voices heard,” he lamented the current situation. He said he believes that any ruling on the matter should come from Congress where “the people of America [can] get a voice.” Cook is optimistic that the potential violations he outlined would be supported from Washington, but he intends to talk to President Obama about the situation and vowed to push the issue all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
“We’re Advocating Civil Liberties”
“I’ve faced a lot of challenges [as Apple CEO] but never felt the government apparatus — this is right up there,” Cook reflected. “We are [the ones] advocating for civil liberties, it’s incredibly ironic.”
Despite the challenges and public way in which this debate is being hashed out, Cook emphasized his company’s deep appreciation for the U.S. and reiterated that “I believe we are making the right choice” in this complicated situation. “Some things are hard and some things are right and some things are both. This is one of those things,” he added.
Ultimately, Cook’s responses echoed with a call for a policy discussion about this very sensitive privacy subject rather than a knee jerk, pressured, in-the-public-spotlight conversation (like is happening now). And while Cook lamented that this is the state of the conversation, his irrepressible optimism declared that they will persevere on behalf of their customers.
While there are a myriad of complexities enveloping this situation, there is no doubt that if Apple were forced to comply, it would sustain considerable damage to the equity of its brand. People would think twice about how they use their phone going forward and that could affect the value proposition of the iPhone as a tool and therefore Apple’s long-terms profits.
However, Cook’s repeated focus (at least publicly) on framing the issue from their customer’s standpoint rather than from Apple’s, is a testament to the firm’s singular customer focus and might help explain to those who only see this issue in black and white terms why the smartphone maker is taking the approach that it is are taking. Apple is always, even now, thinking about its customers.