How Tim Cook Is Managing Apple’s Fight With the Feds

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In an open letter posted to its website Tuesday, Apple's CEO Tim Cook announced the company’s decision to fight the U.S. government’s demand to create a “back door” into its iOS operating system.

To assist the FBI's investigation into December’s San Bernardino shootings, a California court official ordered Apple to create a version of iOS that would bypass a number of security features, effectively nullifying the built-in encryption systems. The government is arguing that the back door can be used only on one phone and soley in this specific instance. Cook and Apple have a different stance on the potential ramifications of developing such a technology.

In the letter, Cook makes the argument not only against a back door into the single phone in question, but declared the necessity of strong encryption technology to the everyday user. For Apple, what’s at stake isn’t just one iPhone, but quite possibly the personal information of every Apple user. Cook argues that once this operating system is developed, it could potentially be used to unlock any iPhone.

Regardless of the technical and moral arguments on both sides of this issue, Apple’s decision to go against the government’s demands ultimately can be traced back to its business. Apple sees its reputation on the line, one that it spent years cultivating. Unlike other tech giants—specifically its archrival Google, whose radically different business model relies on the vast collection of user data—Apple does everything in its power to protect users’ information from itself and unwanted intruders.

But by standing in support of encryption, which Cook argues is in the best interests of Apple customers, the company put itself in a position that will likely alienate many American citizens.

The situation it finds itself in now is nothing short of a crisis. Apple had to make a choice that would split its audience no matter how it responded to the FBI. And now there are strong voices arguing in support of the company and against it. Prominent individuals like Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump have weighed in on the issue, which is sure to keep media attention on the case.

Viewed in this context, Cook’s letter to customers was a decisive move that will set the tone for its communications as this story unfolds. As experienced crisis communicators know, the importance of speaking up and putting your organization’s voice at the center of the conversation cannot be understated.

And that voice is positioning the company as having a sort of Thoreauvian moral fortitude, which is to say that there's a line Apple will not cross. The line is being drawn between turning over data that it already has and creating new software that diminishes the reliability of its encryption. Cook goes to great lengths in his letter to describe the company’s adherence to valid subpoenas and search warrants. He goes on to say that Apple has even made its engineers available to advise the FBI in its investigation. He does not say that Apple will be or has been uncooperative with the FBI's efforts, but rather that what it's being asked to do is too dangerous to the public to even be considered.

By constructing the argument this way, Cook and Apple are taking a moral stance against the government's belittling of encryption technology, which has resonated in responses and media coverage of the issue. Even though this ultimately is a legal issue and eventually will play out in court, Apple positioned itself behind its influential and well-known CEO as a moral champion of the people’s right to privacy.

The problem is that in doing so it has alienated many who have a real fear of terrorist activity, which this type of encryption technology aids, some believe. Cook’s letter tries to address these concerns, but the fact is that Apple now stands in opposition to the federal government. And its reputation is going to take a hit as a result.

Follow Mark: @MarkRenfree