Apple Takes on the Government With Content

Forget revenue generation, brand awareness, or customer experience. Apple just released a piece of content with a far greater goal: to battle an unprecedented order by the U.S. government, and safeguard the 75 million iPhone users in America from a breach of privacy.

On Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the District of Central California ordered Apple to build special software that would bypass the security features on the iPhone 5c of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two San Bernardino shooters.

Apple has decided to oppose the order. In an 1,100-word customer letter published on Apple’s website early this morning, CEO Tim Cook explains in detail how Apple has complied with the FBI’s investigation so far, and why building a backdoor would put the security of every iPhone at risk:

When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.

We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

The letter successfully communicates why this is a deeply troubling idea. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks,” Cook writes, “from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

In essence, the iOS backdoor software would make it possible for someone to unlock an iPhone by using a computer to plug in millions of passcode combinations. Cook’s letter explains this clearly, as well as the larger legal implications of the FBI using the All Writs Act of 1789 to force the company’s hand:

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

Whether you personally agree with Apple’s stance or not, it’s hard to deny that the letter is well-executed. Cook communicates his opposition clearly and concisely, and in terms that the average consumer can understand.

It’s also a moment that captures the dynamics of modern media and PR. Just five years ago, Apple would have likely fed these talking points through a like-minded reporter in order to reach a mass audience. But in 2016, the best move is to publish your message directly to the people—like Amazon did by responding on Medium to the New York Times‘s exposé on the company— eliminating any risk that the message is altered along the way. The media will cover the letter anyway, as the Times did this morning. It’s too important of a story not to.

As of writing, Cook’s letter has been shared over 28,000 times in the first 10 hours, according to BuzzSumo’s software, with momentum only building.

And yes, there’s a marketing benefit here as well. Increasingly, one of Apple’s biggest competitive differentiators from Google is its stance on privacy—a point Cook has made again and again. This letter was yet another opportunity to cement that in the minds of consumers.

Usually, the common logic is that content marketing should shy away from news. In this case, it is the news. And from the looks of it, this story is far from over.

Update: Edward Snowden calls on Google to follow Cook’s lead.

Image by Associated Press
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