Shall we dance? In the course of less than three years, we’ve seen President Obama and Apple CEO Tim Cook perform a fascinating waltz around the other’s privacy and surveillance stance. And what is the end result? Cook becomes our outspoken advocate of the 4th Amendment and the government in its efforts to gain favor over technology companies, ends up leading them to deploy stronger encryption policies. But this story isn’t over – it has likely just begun.
How did we get here: the leader of the free world taking on an icon of American pride in business? For that answer, we must return to the story’s origins, Edward Snowden’s bombshell about the National Security Agency (NSA) and PRISM. Interestingly enough, at that moment in time, Obama and Cook stood as allies. As Cook pointed out in a 2014 interview with Charlie Rose, Snowden’s revelations hurt a lot of companies including Apple, which were accused of giving the government direct access to their servers. Nevertheless, Cook looked back and decided that the government overreacted:
“I think they erred too much on the collect everything side. And I think the [U.S.] president and the [Obama] administration is committed to kind of moving that pendulum back.”
Those aren’t words of war. They’re ones of forgiveness and optimism. Obama, similarly, took a conciliatory stance, inviting Cook and other tech executives to the White House to talk about the balance between surveillance, privacy, and the dangerous world we now live in. A few months later, when Apple and other major tech companies formed the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition, Obama in response agreed in principle to some limits on spying programs and the collection of domestic phone records. These were baby steps.
In the months to follow, Cook redefined the issue about surveillance and made it more about privacy. In September of 2014, he released his famous online open letter in which he sought to clarify Apple’s privacy position and separate it from others in Silicon Valley:
“We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers…. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you.”
Maybe that is where the wheels began to come off, at the moment when Cook changed the conversation. This wasn’t an attack, merely an aside. But this must have raised a red flag in the White House. If so, Obama never showed his hand. In fact, In January of 2014, he proposed legislation that would shield companies from lawsuits for sharing threat data with the government. That’s what negotiations are about. You have to keep the ship on course. But there’s also tit for tat, which is why Obama signed an executive order urging companies to share cybersecurity-threat information with one another and the federal government.
Obama never singled out Cook. Actually he did, invited him in February 2015 to be the only major techie at a cybersecurity and consumer privacy summit hosted by POTUS at Stanford University. Was this Obama’s attempt to appease Cook and continue the privacy conversation behind closed doors? If so, then it didn’t work, because Cook used the opportunity to redefine his company’s privacy stand less as a corporate policy and more as a compassionate one.
“We believe deeply that everyone has a right to privacy and security…History has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences — we still live in a world where all people are not treated equally. Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion, or love who they choose.”
Strong words and very personal ones, considering Cook’s bravery in being one of the few high-profile business leaders who publically came out. Obama however, drew no lines in the sand, focusing more on hackers than privacy. In fact, in September he hosted a White House dinner honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping and gave Cook a prized seat next to the Chinese leader to bend his ear and maybe build a relationship for Apple to grow in a blossoming market.
For all his efforts, Obama must have been surprised when Cook in January of this year demanded that the White House formally defend Americans’ right to strong encryption and no back doors. What was going on here? I believe if you follow the path of Cook’s public words on private issues, you can see his evolution in thinking and passion for the subject matter. Criticizing the government was less an opening salvo as much as an urgency to maintain the dignity and humanity of all of us. That’s undeniably awesome.
The government didn’t think so however, which is why in February the Obama administration secured a court order from an obscure 1789 writ to force Apple to open the very back door that Cook had vocally protested against. Suddenly, the government declared war on encryption mechanisms. Now the gloves were off. Tim Cook responded:
“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”
He was right. In a stunning reversal the government backed down from its position and just hacked the phone on its own. The real question is why did this whole charade have to happen at all? The Justice Department and FBI could have simply deployed expert hackers and cracked the code on the iPhone in question. They didn’t need to drag Apple into this. And they certainly didn’t need to make any of this public. They could have hacked the phone, retrieved the information they needed, and no one would have been the wiser, except for the government who would have had the information they desired.
So as the fog clears, where do we stand? While Tim Cook is lauded for his defense of the Constitution, and suddenly Microsoft has gone on the offensive by filing suit against the Justice Department over its use of court orders to get Microsoft to turn over customer files stored in its datacenters. In the meanwhile Apple, along with all the big Silicon Valley brand names, are now working hard on beefing up their already very strong encryption, to make it utterly impossible for a back door to be created. So for all its efforts to open technology, the government managed to get Silicon Valley to clamp down harder. But these are just the opening salvos. Stay tuned!
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