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Apple’s High-Stakes Wager

February 19, 2016

tim-cook.jpgLike many, I’m perplexed by the current standoff between Apple and the FBI. Being slightly less tech-savvy than the average 10 year-old, its hard for me to wrap my head around the controversy. But I know a branding issue when I see one.

It seems one of the two terrorists that murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California last year was carrying an Apple iPhone5c. But it wasn’t his. It was a work phone, owned by his employer, the San Bernardino Department of Public Health. For some still-unknown reason, a few days before the attack, the shooter disabled automatic backups. So his phone activity for the crucial last days leading up to the crime can only be found on the device itself which is protected by a passcode and a security setting that erases all its data after ten unsuccessful attempts at getting in.

You can understand why the FBI desperately wants to know what’s on that phone. All kinds of vital intelligence might be locked in there, the kind that helps fight terrorism, maybe even prevents an upcoming attack. So, after asking nicely and being rebuffed, they got a court order instructing Apple to write a program that gets around the phone’s security and encryption. And, even thought the Public Health Department gave permission to search their phone, Apple is still refusing to write the code.

I’ve evangelized before that successful brands establish values and sync them up with the values of their market. The people at Apple, master branders that they are, have done that. One of the values that they live by is to promise, always, to respect their customers’ privacy. The data on your iPhone is encrypted and available only to you. Apple has always been diligent about keeping that promise. And, as I always say, a brand is a promise kept. If Apple breaks that promise, they destroy the covenant that is, in a very real sense, their brand.

comey.jpgBut it’s a terrorist’s phone and he’s dead now and, anyway, it wasn’t even really his phone! It seems the upside of cracking the phone clearly outweighs the downside. That is, until you realize that any code that would open one iPhone5c would open all of them. And a software patch like that could be easily updated to hack into all iPhones of whatever version. No matter how carefully guarded, within time, that code would fall into the hands of creepy stalkers, unethical cops (yes, they do exist) and evil dictators alike. Their victims could end up in real danger. Overseas sales of iPhones would plummet if foreign nationals believed Uncle Sam could spy on them through their phones. That could cost American jobs. And, if an international company like Apple could be compelled by the US to open up a back door to a tech product, how could they say no to similar demands made by the UK, or Germany, or Russia, or China?

It seems to me – and, again, I’m no expert – that reasonable people should be able to find a way to work this out. I’ve heard there is other, legal technology available that will help the FBI get the data they need to keep us safe. But I’ll leave the software issues to the engineers and the legal issues to the lawyers. What fascinates me here is the branding issue.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, must be wishing that terrorist was carrying any other type of phone. Now, he has been forced by circumstances into a very high-risk wager. He could cooperate with the FBI, write the code as requested, and put all his customers’ private information at risk of being hacked and exploited. Even a step in that direction would guarantee a tsunami of criticism from the rest of the tech world, not to mention a serious revolt staged by his own, best customers – who would, accurately, claim he had betrayed Apple’s brand promise. Or, he can do as he’s doing – refuse to cooperate with the justice system and risk a backlash of a different sort – the kind that labels him, and Apple, as amoral profiteers, happily going about their business of exploiting child labor and enabling terrorism. Donald Trump has already called for a boycott of Apple products. Either path risks serious, perhaps irreparable, damage to the Apple brand. Can Tim Cook chart safe passage between Scylla and Charybdis? Don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching this story carefully.

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