Today, Apple strongly and publicly opposed a government order to assist federal investigators with unlocking an iPhone used by one of the shooters in December's terrorist attacks in San Bernardino. The pointed, yet diplomatic, open letter to Apple customers from CEO Tim Cook is the latest milestone in an 18-month campaign to highlight Apple’s stance on data collection and encryption. It’s also a recognition of a bigger truth for Cook and company: now, more than ever, privacy is Apple’s most important product.
Privacy has been a cornerstone issue of Cook’s CEO tenure, during which he has frequently taken highly public and seemingly principled positions on diversity and human rights. In September 2014, after suspicions that an iCloud breach was the source of a major celebrity nude photos leak, Cook penned his first open letter about “Apple’s commitment to your privacy,” suggesting that "our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don't 'monetize' the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don't read your email or your messages to get information to market to you.”
Cook has remained outspoken ever since, addressing the issue on Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, and onstage at Apple keynotes. Earlier this year, Cook criticized White House officials during a meeting sources described as “highly contentious” for not supporting unbreakable encryption for tech companies in the face of requests from government agencies. For Cook and Apple, the company’s response to the FBI’s request is clearly an opportunity to engender goodwill with consumers, but it’s more than that — it’s absolutely crucial to the future of Apple’s business.
The rivalry between Google and Apple is perhaps best viewed in the context of tech’s deepening focus on ecosystems, where consumers pick a side — iPhone or Android, say — and are subsequently ushered into a unified walled garden of products controlled by just one tech giant. Buy an iPhone, and it’s more likely that you’ll want an Apple TV to go with it. But if you have an Android? The Nexus Player is going to work best for you.
Apple’s battle is getting people to buy fully into Apple’s suite of products and baking them into every part of your life until your familiarity and brand preference becomes something a bit more like reliance. Part of this is making products that work together well (iMessages from your phone show up on your computer, switching from watching a show on your iPhone to your Apple TV); Apple billed this feature a few years ago as “Continuity.”
But the most important element in an ecosystem battle is trust. An ecosystem like the one Apple is building works better with the more personal information you provide it. This information and privacy trade-off is nothing new, but the stakes for both tech companies and consumers increase along with the sophistication of the devices and as they gather ever more data.
Many of Apple’s grandest ambitions are wrapped up in all of this. Take HealthKit and ResearchKit, Apple’s platform that collects deeply personal health information from any number of apps and devices and help create a profile that you can — potentially — share with actual medical professionals (it’s already being done at places like Duke and Johns Hopkins). These products have the potential to reorient the way health data is collected and distributed and, down the line, perhaps even how we approach health care.
These products are all heavily baked into Apple’s newest and most ambitious hardware, like the Apple Watch, which aims to, among other things, allow doctors to monitor patients remotely. The company branded the watch as its “most personal device, ever,” and it’s easy to see, in the not too distant future, the Apple Watch becoming a sort of personal token that’s continually customized to fit your life. It’ll unlock your doors, start your car, all while monitoring the heartbeat of your unborn child in order to detect any irregularities and immediately send them to a doctor. In other words, it’s a product with personal privacy risks as great, if not greater, than its potential.
Which is why if you try to talk to anyone at Apple about either HealthKit and ResearchKit you’ll first have to wade through long, detailed explanations of the security, privacy, and encryption infrastructure surrounding this data (both products are stored on the phone and not part of a cloud model, and Apple offers the ability to backup the data, but it’s never decrypted on company servers, nor is it monetized — it's device-centric). That’s because Apple understands what’s at stake here: trust, when it comes to user privacy, is the glue that holds all these ambitions together.
The depth and scope of the digital ecosystems that companies like Apple and Google provide — they’re our personal assistants, personal trainers, banks, cameras, navigators and maps, address books, entertainment diversions, inboxes, photo albums, the portal to every consequential personal and professional social interaction, and a million other things, including potentially even our doctors...someday — means that Apple’s stand for privacy isn’t just about an iPhone, it’s about our entire digital lives. And it’s just one of the early steps in an increasingly public, deeply consequential, and incredibly complex fight over the particulars of trafficking in user data as well as the freedoms afforded to our identities as they exist online. It’s also part of a seemingly intractable tension between public safety and internet security — a fight that could easily find its way to the highest courts in the land.
There are clear risks associated with taking the kind of stance that Apple just took. Apple has knowingly and very publicly chosen to tangle with a powerful adversary in the United States government and entered into a messy social and political conversation about national security, terrorism, and surveillance. In a deeply divided and contentious election year, Apple’s decision has, in a matter of hours, become a stump speech talking point for candidates like Donald Trump, who quickly attacked the tech company. Simply put, the company is risking pissing off plenty of people who might be compelled to see this as an attempt to make life easier for the bad guys.
It’s also a hugely important way for Apple to get a leg up on its biggest competitors and pretty much any technology company that collects user data. Apple’s decision could force fellow tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft to take a stand on this issue or risk the appearance that user privacy isn’t a priority. (It's worth noting that Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo, plus LinkedIn and AOL, all joined a government surveillance reform coalition in 2013 in the wake of the Snowden/NSA revelations.)
And then, most important, there’s Google. Both Apple and Google are ultimately after the same thing: to be your everything. And to do that they’re going to need your data. But with opposition like Cook showed today, Apple has the enormous opportunity to differentiate itself in a battle of ecosystems that, for all their proprietary bells and whistles, aren’t all that different.
With its stance, Apple can take a right as fundamental as privacy and rebrand it as a feature, a tangible product that the tech giant can do better than anybody else. This is not to suggest the company isn’t earnest in its attempts to protect its users, but the decision works for Apple’s business interests as well and fits nicely with the marketing narrative that it’s been weaving since the beginning of the ecosystem wars: Apple sells hardware and services while Google sells your data.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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