Bolting straight and adding timbre to his soft Southern accent, Apple’s (AAPL) CEO explained why so much is at stake in fighting the FBI’s request it unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino killers.
“We are a staunch advocate of privacy,” Cook said. “We do these things because they are right.”
In public settings, letters and testimony, Cook has been using the pulpit of Apple to emerge as one of the world’s most outspoken corporate executives on privacy and other social issues.
For Cook and Apple, taking on the government is fraught with risk. The U.S. often wins legal conflicts with individual companies. But there is an upside to Cook’s gambit: It’s good for business — buyers of Apple’s high-end electronic devices are sticklers for privacy, especially those overseas — and it has cemented Cook’s status as the tech industry’s leading voice for protecting the personal data of consumers.
Before Cook, Apple was a company that reflected the passion of Steve Jobs: The news that emanated from Cupertino, Calif., was product launch, product launch, product launch. The rare Jobs interview was comprised of him commenting on a new gizmo, and nothing else.
Today the narrative has changed dramatically, and Cook is a willing participant. Apple arguably is defined as much now by its legal fight with the government as its next iPhone.
When Apple unveils its new iPhone the week of March 21, as expected, it will be the second-most important piece of news that week. On March 22, Apple and the FBI face off in federal court.
Indeed, the government’s gambit is influenced, in part, by rumors of an ultra-secure iPhone that would be next to impossible to crack, say security experts.
“It is an escalating game of security, with dangerous consequences, if the government loses before such an iPhone goes to market,” says Nathan Wenzler, executive director of security at computer-security start-up Thycotic.
A privacy crusader
Cook, 55, took over leadership of Apple in late 2011, after the death of Steve Jobs, the company’s iconic co-founder. Apple was as infused with the brains, heart and soul of Jobs as Walt Disney personified his Magic Kingdom.
At the time, Cook was well-regarded as a private, behind-the-scenes operations wizard who would assume a caretakers’ role at Apple, extending Jobs’ legacy. But unlike Jobs — who rarely made political statements or shared his opinion on current events — Cook clearly expressed his views on privacy, the environment, gay rights, diversity and discrimination.
As far back as 2010, Cook said privacy was paramount at Apple. The company “has always had a very different view of privacy than some of our colleagues in the Valley,” he said that year. By late 2013, Apple made all third-party data stored on customers’ phones encrypted by default.
Apple’s resolve hardened after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s surveillance program and the embarrassing disclosure, in late 2014, that hackers broke into the Apple accounts of a number of celebrities, stole their nude photos and leaked them on the Internet. Apple strengthened its security.
“Tim Cook is the most influential tech executive in the post-Snowden firmament,” says Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Through personal beliefs, news events and the importance of privacy to Apple’s business, he is the industry’s chief advocate.”
Apple’s hardline on privacy is seen as smart business sense, especially in China, its second-largest market.
But here, the profile of Cook as a staunch privacy advocate gets a little blurrier. Apple has been criticized for moving some of its Chinese customers’ data onto servers run by state-run China Telecom, a shift seen as making it more possible for the Chinese government to gain access to user data. Apple contends it made the move to increase data speeds and that the data is encrypted and off-limits to China Telecom.
At the same time, the level of encryption in recent iPhones has helped make it a favored brand among Chinese consumers who are more suspicious of state-owned device makers’ complicity with the Chinese government.
The upshot, says Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, is a delicate balancing act Apple plays in China.
Personal convictions have also been part of the Apple/Cook calculus on privacy. In 2014, he revealed he was gay, the first publicly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. At the time, he said he was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to set aside his own privacy to do something “more important.”
Last year, he wrote an editorial decrying an Indiana law that protected state business owners from being sued over declining services to gays and lesbians.
“What Cook is doing is proving Apple is not just a company of great products, but one of principle,” says Lisa Joy Rosner, chief marketing officer at information-services company Neustar. Its analysis of internal data about Apple consumers portrays them as vigilant about privacy and secure devices, she says.
That’s very much the role Tim Cook’s Apple has taken on as it grapples with the U.S. government in the courts and in the public eye.
“Had the dispute involved an Android phone, Google would be the leading voice. If a Microsoft phone, them,” says Phil Dunkelberger, former CEO of PGP, a pioneer in encryption technology.
“Cook is echoing the industry, and taken the mantle,” Dunkelberger says. “He’s our voice.”
Written by Jon Swartz of USA Today
(Source: USA Today)