Apple’s dramatic stand against an FBI request could prove to be a momentous incident in the ongoing battle for control over data.
But it’s a complicated issue. At the start of February, the FBI asked Apple to help its agents gain access to the locked iPhone of the terrorist responsible for December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino. Apple refused, but the FBI eventually persuaded a federal magistrate to order Apple to unlock the device on February 16th. In response, Apple CEO Tim Cook has now issued an open letter essentially arguing that the FBI wants Apple to build a ‘backdoor’ into its secure devices, thereby diminishing the personal data security of the millions of iPhone and iPad users—and that it won’t comply, out of “the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country.”
In a way, it’s the latest and most salient evolution in an intensifying pro-privacy stance on Apple’s part. In an interview with NPR last fall, Tim Cook played up Apple’s use of on-device encryption and called privacy “a fundamental human right.” And later, when a widely used software development kit was found to be in violation of Apple policies protecting user data, the company immediately removed some 250 apps that had been using it from its iTunes store.
While the FBI argues it is asking Apple to only modify a single device, Apple asserts that to do so would be to undermine the security on all Apple devices by exposing a security flaw. Whatever the merits of the issue, as Slate’s Will Oremus points out, Apple’s stance could ultimately be good marketing—intentionally or not—by highlighting the company’s commitment to user privacy in a market in which competitors like Google have garnered a reputation for mining user data in order to subsidize their products and services. Of course, public opinion could also easily turn against Apple, if the company is perceived to be siding with a terrorist.
In any case, the issue offers a particularly high-profile illustration of a tension that appears to be growing as governments, businesses, and civil groups wrestle for control over user data.