Washington vs. Silicon Valley

In December 2015 there was a terrorist attack in San Bernidino, California. During the attack 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured. At the time it was reported to be the deadliest mass shooting in America. The two suspects, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, faced a shootout with police and were both killed. Months after the attack took place, the FBI came forward saying they had an iPhone 5C used by Farook. The FBI approached Apple to crack the phone but the Department of Justice had to undergo a legal fight with Apple because they resisted the request. Throughout this, Apple remained strong to their key messages and handled the situation well. This blog post will look at some key points, such as the letter to Apple customers, the 30-minute interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook on ABC News and the reaction of several tech companies showing their support for Apple.

The Letter

Once it had been revealed that the FBI wanted Apple to make a “back door” to Farook’s phone, Apple handled this crisis well by releasing a letter to its customers explaining clearly why they didn’t plan on following the FBI’s order. The letter detailed how Apple are committed to protecting their customers’ data: “The contents of your iPhone are none of our business”.

The letter noted the wider issue of American democracy and the irony behind the FBI asking Apple to put its customers in danger. Despite FBI claims that this was one man and one iPhone, Apple refused to take this as a guarantee of limited government access. After all, what would happen if the FBI desperately needed this service again?

Apple compared the back door access to a “master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks”. The letter didn’t slate the FBI or question their desire to crack the case. Instead Apple confirmed that they are fully against terrorism and have worked to support the government as much as possible by following search warrants and going as far as providing Apple engineers, all stating that this is “within our power and within the law”.

The letter included links to a short Q&A to provide justification for their stance and was signed off by the CEO Tim Cook. Tim Cook remained visible throughout the crisis, which positioned Apple as a customer friendly company.

Tim Cook’s interview with ABC

In February 2016, Tim Cook gave an exclusive 30-minute interview to ABC News (watch the highlights here). Tim answered some difficult questions, including the fact that some families of those who died in the terrorist attack were urging Apple to crack the phone. He responded by saying that Apple have collaborated with the FBI and given them any information they requested. Throughout, he reiterated that more is at stake and that it doesn’t make sense for them to write software contradicting their own security advancements. A killer line from the interview is when Tim said the operating system would be the “software equivalent of cancer”. Tim assured the interviewer that if they had a way to get the information without putting hundreds of millions of customers at risk, they would obviously do it. Tim repeatedly said this was about more than one iPhone.

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Image: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple on ABC News, February 2016

As terrorism is a hot political issue, Tim was asked to respond to Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump suggesting that Apple should be boycotted until they help unlock the phone. He did this by supporting democracy and a right to protest, but also that the best thing to do is work on a solution. He uses the interviewer as a personal example of how a phone can hold a scary amount of data about a person including, health, finance and intimate conversations.

Steve Jobs, Tim’s much-loved predecessor was brought up in the interview as well. Tim handled this smoothly by stating that Steve Jobs loved American Democracy and would never put it at risk. Like the letter, Tim explained that it’s an uncomfortable position to oppose the government on something, where Apple is advocating the civil liberties that the government is meant to protect.

Support for Apple

At the same time, Tim wasn’t afraid to bring up the mistakes made by the Justice Department such as how they attempted reset Farook’s iCloud without contacting Apple and this ultimately meant the data couldn’t be accessed via iCloud – this was really crucial.

This event was not just a crisis about Apple and the FBI; it was about something much larger and can be referred to as Washington vs. Silicon Valley. It opened up the conversation of secure electronic communications and government access. During its handling of the crisis, Apple got support from well-known digital companies including Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Mozilla and Google showing that Apple’s outward facing approach was a success in this crisis.

Click here to find out what happened next.

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