Tim Cook: Not just a  CEO

Washington – When murderers armed with semiautomatic weapons killed 12 people at a holiday party on the campus of the Inland Regional Centre in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, the nation was outraged and terrified. Though the traditional prayer vigils followed, the high body count and religious affiliation of the killers meant this would be no typical mass shooting. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a halt to Muslims entering the country – a call that found considerable popular support. The following month, President Barack Obama issued executive orders to, as the White House put it, “make our communities safer.” In this charged environment, it seemed both sides of the aisle were willing to show their readiness to do something, meaningful or not, to stop future attacks.

But when the FBI asked Apple chief executive Tim Cook for very specific help in the San Bernardino investigation – unlocking an iPhone used by one of the killers – he said no. In the weeks that followed, Cook, dispensing with statements through lawyers and spokesmen to invoke the First Amendment in bold personal pleas, has become the leader not just of America’s most valuable company, but of a movement.

Rallies have been organised in some 50 cities in protest of the FBI’s demands. Organisations ranging from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union to Amnesty International have lined up in support of Cook. “Apple is right to fight back in this case,” said a statement from Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty. “The FBI’s request, which would in practice require Apple to rewrite its operating system to weaken security protections, would set a very dangerous precedent. Such backdoors undermine everyone’s security and threaten our right to privacy.”

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Cook has attracted support as well from libertarians, such as Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute. Apple’s resistance to the FBI order transcends the question of “whether the federal government can read one dead terrorism suspect’s phone,” he wrote, but forces us to ask “whether technology companies can be conscripted to undermine global trust in our computing devices. That’s a staggeringly high price to pay for any investigation.”

And this is just the beginning of what’s bound to become an epic legal battle likely to wind up at the Supreme Court should the government press its demand. “We would be prepared to take this issue all the way,” Cook said Wednesday evening, having already enlisted one of the nation’s top Supreme Court litigators, Ted Olson, a former US solicitor general (and, as it happens, a man who lost his wife to terrorism on 9/11 – when Barbara Olson plunged to her death aboard American Airlines Flight 77 as it crashed into the Pentagon).

Cook is no longer just a CEO. “I think he’s a national security hero right now,” Nico Sell, co-chairman of Wickr, an encrypted messaging app, told NPR, “and more of us need to follow him.”

The man who said “I don’t consider myself an activist” when he reluctantly came out as gay two years ago in Bloomberg Businessweek – a publication not known for its presence on every coffee table – is now talking about “the best of America” on national television, invoking the name of the country at least 14 times in 29 minutes.

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“I think we’re seeing something kind of unique,” Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Mic. “When the CEO of Apple speaks, people listen. I think that it is the same for Google or Microsoft or GE. But you don’t find those CEOs speaking out very much. He’s got a sharper edge to him than I think we thought he had.”

“Cook has chosen to put himself and Apple at Centre stage on an issue of central importance to the technology industry, criminal justice, and society, with no assurance of where this choice will lead,” wrote Geoff Colvin in Fortune. “He apparently just believes it’s time this issue got confronted head-on. That’s leadership behaviour, and whatever the outcome, it elevates Apple’s status.”

Cook’s passion was in full display Wednesday night during an extended interview with ABC. Yes – the Declaration of Independence was there, too.

“This is our country,” Cook said. “This country is about life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s about freedom of expression and freedom of speech. These are core principles of America.”

He cited his support among the armed forces.

“I’ve gotten thousands of emails since this occurred and the largest single category of people are from the military,” he said. “These are men and women who fight for our freedom and our liberty. And they want us to stand up and be counted on this issue for them.” He added: “I am reading every one of them.”

Nothing heroic

Of course, to critics, there’s nothing heroic about Cook’s stand. Trump, another businessman leading a movement, called for a boycott of Apple until it cooperates with the government. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said Apple is compromising public safety.

“San Bernardino is now the most prominent, national example of how Silicon Valley’s decisions are thwarting serious criminal investigations and impeding public safety,” they said in the statement. “When Apple made the overnight switch to default device encryption in September 2014, the company clearly gave no notice or thought to the impact that decision would have on crime victims.”

FBI Director James Comey has personally challenged Cook’s stance. “We have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure – privacy and safety,” Comey wrote. “That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”

The Justice Department, meanwhile, accused Apple of fighting not for principle, but “for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

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There’s no reason to think that Cook’s rhetoric on San Bernardino isn’t genuine. He was for encryption before he was really, really for it, defending his company’s technology on NPR in an interview with Robert Siegel last year before the attack in California.

Robert Siegel: “If there’s some text message that supposedly concerns hijacked airplanes and skyscrapers and dirty bombs, would you say, ‘The government, you could have that?'”

Cook: “The government comes to us from time to time, and if they ask in a way that is correct, and has been through the courts as is required, then to the degree that we have information, we give that information. However, we design our products in such a way that privacy is designed into the product. And security is designed in. And so if you think about it . . . some of our most personal data is on the phone: our financial data, our health information, our conversations with our friends and family and co-workers. And so instead of us taking that data into Apple, we’ve kept data on the phone and it’s encrypted by you. You control it.”

Cook’s message now is the same: A backdoor into the iPhone would be “sort of the equivalent of cancer,” as he told ABC. It’s just his delivery that’s changed.

And what’s good for America, it seems, is good for Apple. Cook isn’t defending encryption on a whim. He’s sold over 800 million iPhones, and wants to sell more. Secrets are his brand. Indeed, the New York Times just reported Apple is working on new code for its iPhone software that would be make it difficult for it to comply with court orders like the one in the San Bernardino case in the future.

Good idea

“It’s a masterful stroke of speechifying,” Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch wrote last year of Cook’s public defenses of privacy. “. . . By taking this stance (which I do not believe to be disingenuous, their profit centres support it), Apple has put all other cloud companies in the unfortunate position of digging themselves out of a moral communications hole to prove their altruism when it comes to user data.”

When the government – or governments – want Apple’s user data, it makes it harder for the folks in Cupertino to do business. And when the biggest company in the country can’t do business, that’s bad. Maybe this is why, as Cook told ABC, he plans to meet with Obama.

Indeed, in the view of some, the well-being of the entire US tech sector may be at stake. “Remember the early days of the web, when people were afraid to enter their credit card details?” wrote James Allworth in the Harvard Business Review. “It took years to get to a point where there was enough trust that buying things online was considered normal.”

He added: “Already it’s the case that America’s European allies don’t trust the US with their citizens’ social media data. After forcing a backdoor into Apple’s phones – and who knows which could be the next company that gets a knock on the door – what is the rest of the world going to think?”