Apple’s Winning the PR Battle but is it Losing the Crypto War?

I don’t think Apple has actually won the current PR battle with the FBI yet, but I do think they are winning it — even though a recent Pew Research poll suggests it’s an uphill battle.

Pew Research Poll

Given Apple’s formidable power — and Tim Cook’s personal lobbying — they should be expected to do well in this skirmish, but this isn’t where the larger war will play out.

In the end, we need to have the larger debate — as a country — because it’s a growing legal tension between two virtues — privacy and security. While it’s tempting to simply cast the FBI as the “heavy” here, the issue is actually far more challenging than just one PR campaign — even if that campaign is by a tech giant with broad industry (and consumer) support.

While it certainly isn’t the loudest voice in this debate, I believe FBI Director Comey has the clearest one — and I sincerely hope that more people read his side of the argument. To that end — here is a summary version:

The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That’s what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI.
The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror if we don’t follow this lead.
Reflecting the context of this heart-breaking case, I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other. Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure: privacy and safety.
That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before. We shouldn’t drift to a place — or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices — because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time.

For my money — that is the argument. Not flawless encryption — which I don’t really care about because I now fully expect my data to be bought and sold by the few companies whose apps I still use. The virtues are privacy and security, but the ultimate goal is trust — and that’s in short supply in every direction — including Apple.

Apple’s argument is on behalf of privacy, but not trust. The last remaining Apple product I own is an older iPod — for my car — but that means I still use iTunes (desktop) and that means I — like everyone who uses their cloud service — must wade through and agree to their Terms of Service (or TOS). Like many, I didn’t really read through that TOS because it now runs a full 20,500 words (about 50 pages in MS-Word), just for buying songs. Maybe it says they won’t sell my data — maybe it says they will — I don’t know and I don’t really care because my trust in any company requiring a 50-page TOS for anything online is effectively zero.

And that’s a key part of the larger issue — and debate — that Apple is avoiding. Trust is earned in ounces — and lost in gallons. When it comes to my personal data — I have diminishing trust in any “side” and I will continue to limit both my digital footprint — and exhaust. In this I am not alone. Comscore says that the average person now spends 80% of their time on mobile devices using only 3 apps. App Annie tells us that Facebook and Google make 8 of the 10 most used apps. We’ve reached a kind of “app” saturation and healthy skepticism.

The privacy battle is much larger than just flawless encryption. That encryption is meaningless for apps that demand agreement to onerous Terms of Service and many of the newer apps rely on their ability to sell consumer data to even survive. Customer acquisition costs for mobile apps via ads now run between $4 and $15. Charging $1 or $2 for an app is net negative — unless, of course, the app is collecting (and selling) our data.

A key concern for everyone — and referenced by Tim Cook in his very public appeal — is personal health data, but as just one example — 80% of 211 apps used to monitor diabetes have no privacy policy at all.

As to the debate between Apple and the FBI, I suspect that Apple will win this battle but I also suspect it’s far from the end of the debate or war. Congress is likely to weigh in — as they should — in an effort to balance the needs of the many in a democracy — against the commercial interests of the one — or the few. We’ve lived comfortably with legal search warrants for centuries — and I suspect we’ll navigate our way to an electronic equivalent. Free speech never granted anyone the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater — although in this climate of politics — even that adage is likely to be tested.

In the end, I think Apple will win the current battle with the FBI but the privacy/security (and safety) war ahead looms much larger. It’s an important debate that demands clear — not just loud voices. Whether the Apple/FBI case winds up on the docket of the Supreme Court has yet to be seen, but I’m reasonably confident that the war will wind up there — after Congress weighs in. Date TBD, but the issue (if not the Apple/FBI case) easily warrants their full attention.

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