It may seem like an easy choice for Apple to comply. Law-enforcement officials have repeatedly said the virtually unbreakable encryption that protects Apple’s iPhones helps terrorists. Americans remain very afraid of terrorism—two in three say a terrorist attack is likely or very likely in the next several weeks—so this is a chance for the company to appear tough on terror without severely undermining its pro-privacy stance.
But that’s not what’s happening. Tim Cook, who has recently become an unofficial spokesman for pro-encryption tech companies, dug in his heels in an open letter published on Apple’s website just hours after the court order was released.
Cook called the implications of the FBI request “chilling,” and argued that it sets a precedent for wider government access of consumer data. “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers—including tens of millions of American citizens—from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals,” Cook wrote.
With this message to his customers, Cook is thrusting the long-simmering debate over law-enforcement access to encrypted data farther into the public sphere than it’s ever been before. The government has repeatedly called for a dialogue over encryption, but such dialogue generally takes the form of officials meeting with tech executives behind closed doors.
Apple’s move imitates a tactic that has served Uber well in the past, as The Wall Street Journal’s Daisuke Wakabayashi observes. When Uber butted heads with city governments from San Francisco to New York, it enlisted its enormous user base to show support for the company. In nearly every case, it prevailed, and secured friendly regulations that allowed it to continue growing.
Apple is hoping its customers will assemble behind its public resistance to the government. It’s gambling that its strong pro-privacy and pro-security stance will win over the public, even if it allows the FBI to paint it as soft on terrorism.
But Donald Trump has already seized on that soft-on-terror angle to bash Apple: “I agree 100 percent with the courts,” Trump said on Fox and Friends. “To think that Apple won't allow us to get into her cellphone—who do they think they are?” And Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, said Apple “chose to protect a dead ISIS terrorist’s privacy over the security of the American people.”
Being pro-privacy has become an important part of Apple’s image in recent years, and it’s pushed for genuinely consumer-friendly policies. The company sees itself at the vanguard of the pushback against what it considers government overreach, and is protecting a broad set of interests with its push for strong encryption. If this case were to set a legal precedent for the FBI to access its consumers’ data, the company would probably lose some number of privacy-conscious customers. But the blow to computer security would reverberate more widely than just in Apple’s world, and could have broad effects on the U.S. economy, large parts of which depend on encryption.