The FBI and Apple: Coding the Future of Fashion

While the media and industry groups have focused on the impact of the legal fight between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Apple over a locked iPhone, the encryption debate is not just about tech. The privacy and security issues around the Apple case will also have a profound impact on the industries connected to tech as well, including the $1.2 trillion global fashion industry.

The importance of technology solutions to fashion illustrates the broader impact of the legal battle between the FBI and Apple. Both the federal government and Apple agree on the importance of software code for privacy and security, though they have differing views as to how computer code should shape the current encryption debate. The federal government has argued that writing software code that provides backdoor access for a tech company like Apple is not an “unreasonable burden.” However, Apple has asserted that the language of computer code and a digital signature to verify such code constitute as speech that merits First Amendment protection.

Computer code is the blueprint necessary for e-commerce websites to run, controlling such features as login information, data security protections for storing and transferring customers’ personal information, and other unique settings to help personalize the users’ shopping experiences. Rent the Runway uses software code to help its customers navigate the nearly 65,000 articles of clothing and accessories found on the company’s site and app to find the perfect style and fit. The company — which considers its business to have a “technology soul” — currently has 54 employees in its engineering department.

Innovative e-commerce companies also marry production software and marketplace trends to curate exclusive designer collections. The storage and transfer of customer data could not be done without using computer code to ensure that their customers’ information is safe and secure. If Apple is compelled to give the FBI access to encrypted data by writing new computer code, that would set a dangerous precedent for retailers committed to storing their customers’ data securely and confidentially. Fashion brands and e-commerce companies would be required to create a security-weakened version of their software so that law enforcement could access their customers’ data.

Companies making smart apparel and accessories connected to mobile apps will also be impacted by the FBI and Apple legal battle. These companies must ensure the privacy and security of their customers’ data stored on the wearables and apps as well as the data transfers from the devices to the apps. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has actively policed the security practices of numerous tech companies and recommended — pursuant to its consumer protection mandate — the use of “strong cryptography to secure confidential material during storage and transmission.”

The FTC also emphasized the importance of using reasonable security measures to protect consumers’ information during the Commission’s enforcement action against Snapchat.

Companies selling wearable fashion linked to apps — like the Caeden connected bracelet — affirmatively market the security features of their devices and apps. Consumers still care about their personal privacy, and as fashion consumers continue to engage with their social networks, browse, and shop via Internet-connected devices, they want to make sure that their personal information — whether it’s their contact info, purchase history or credit card information — is safe and secure. That cannot be done without strong encryption tools.

Many fashion companies are also connected to the tech industry through partnerships and collaborations. Microsoft has supported the growth and expansion of fashion tech start-ups through its partnerships with the New York Fashion Tech Lab and Manufacture New York. Google for Entrepreneurs has helped power the annual Global Fashion Battle competition to spur innovation in the fashion tech industry. And Intel — now an official partner of New York Fashion Week — has collaborated with numerous fashion brands to develop wearables, including Opening Ceremony, Chromat, and LVMH house Tag Heuer. Because of these connections, any significant privacy and security changes related to the technology sector will also affect the fashion industry.

In the coming months, we will continue to see how all three branches of government — the Administration, Congress, and the courts — will weigh in on the issues of personal privacy and data security. Any attempt to require companies to weaken their encryption technology would not only undermine security but also stifle the creativity and innovation behind fashion.