Commentary Magazine

Apple’s Rotten Move

Image by © PAUL MILLER/epa/Corbis

I’m an Apple junkie. I have a Mac desktop, a MacBook Air, an iPhone, an iPad, and Apple TV. Somewhere in my house is my old iPod which I haven’t used in a while. So it pains me to see Apple taking a stand so at odds with American national security and, properly understood, Apple’s own long-term self-interest.

A federal magistrate has ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, the ISIS-inspired fanatic who, along with his wife, murdered 14 people in San Bernardino. Apple CEO Tim Cook refuses to comply with this lawful and proper request. On Apple’s website, he has posted a sanctimonious and misleading defense of Apple’s actions. He notes that all of the information on Apple phones “needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.”

As an Apple user, I appreciate Cook’s desire to safeguard my information from bad guys. But what does that have to do with helping the FBI conduct a legitimate terrorism investigation? According to Cook, the problem is that the FBI wants Apple to build a program so monstrous that it will, if unleashed on the world, wreak all sorts of havoc. What is this Frankenstein program? It’s a “backdoor to the iPhone” — a new version of the iPhone operating system that would allow it to be unlocked by authorities.

Along with other technology companies such as Google, Apple has long resisted FBI requests to build such a “backdoor.” It keeps insisting that the public interest is better served by selling encrypted phones that cannot be penetrated by anyone, whether hackers or the FBI. But as Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz has pointed out it is hardly beyond the ingenuity of Silicon Valley “to protect their users’ legitimate privacy with encryption while also enabling intelligence agents and law enforcement to gain access to what terrorists plot online.”

It’s not that Apple and the rest can’t create the “backdoor”; they simply prefer not to because they are responding to the encryption mania of users who were unduly alarmed by Edward Snowden’s revelations into thinking that some drone at the NSA is reading all of their texts. In fact, as a new inspector general’s report reveals, NSA gets far less data on Americans’ Internet use than is widely believed. Indeed, companies like Apple are guilty of collecting far more information on their customers than the government does. Rather than trying to calm unreasonable fears, Apple and the rest cater to the anti-government hysteria.

Their argument is that if they do provide backdoors on their phones, then users will migrate to foreign companies that don’t. That’s unlikely, given that together Android and Apple operating systems run on 96.7 percent of phones sold last year. (Another 2.6 percent run Windows, which is made by another American company — Microsoft.) There is simply no conceivable alternative at the moment for customers who want smart phones. It is unlikely that either Apple or Google would lose a significant number of customers over a “backdoor,” especially when the existence of such a shortcut could and should be kept secret.

What about arguments that if the U.S. forces a backdoor, then other countries will follow suit and demand a key? That’s probably true, but should not be of great concern when the countries in question are democracies such as Britain and France. It’s more of an issue when it comes to China or Russia or other despotic states. But then those countries already snoop on their citizens in ways that the NSA never could. China, for instance, operates a massive Internet-monitoring operation that already makes it very difficult for citizens to communicate without having the state monitor what they’re saying. If confronted with Chinese demands for a backdoor, companies could refuse to comply even if it means leaving the Chinese market — the principled decision. But even if they were to do the unprincipled thing and comply, it would still have only a marginal impact on civil liberties, which are already nonexistent in China.

Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley are acting as if they aren’t part of the United States — as if they are part of some “global” economy and thus above the laws of the country that gave birth to them and has nurtured their prosperity. This is a common but blinkered attitude among techies. The reality is that Silicon Valley could not have been created anywhere else in the world, and its long-term health and prosperity is intimately connected with the long-term security of the United States. Terrorism is bad for business. If you want to put this crudely, it is in Apple’s self-interest to help safeguard the country where most of its employees, shareholders, and customers are based. Beyond that, one would think that Tim Cook & Co. would feel some patriotism and want to help defend the United States even if doing so caused a minor hit on the bottom-line.

In World War II, lots of big business executives went to work for the government as “dollar a year” men. No one is asking Tim Cook to sacrifice a penny of the $10.3 million he earned last year. All that’s being asked of him is to order his engineers to cooperate with the FBI to uncover the secrets of an ISIS mass murderer. But apparently that’s asking too much.

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