Apple's Legal Standoff With the FBI Makes Privacy Fanaticism a Marketing Tool

While other tech companies are assisting with the fight against terrorism, Apple has put protecting a mass killer's iPhone from a search warrant the center of its brand.

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By Peter Page

REUTERS |Lucy Nicholson

Tim Cook's new marketing strategy is to make Apple to privacy rights what the NRA is to gun rights.

The NRA's decades of advocacy protected the Second Amendment right of Syed Rizwan Farook to legitimately purchase the arsenal he and his wife used to kill 14 and wound 22 in San Bernardino. Apple's new job is keeping the people investigating the case and looking for hints of future attacks from reading what's in Farook's sacrosanct iPhone 5C.

Cook's absolutism on the right to iPhone privacy means he and Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, face similar messaging challenges. LaPierre must rationalize the legal sale of military grade weaponry and munitions to everyone, including the occasional terrorist and person hearing voices. Cook now must explain why protecting Apple customers from getting their credit card accounts hacked requires smartphones give absolute anonymity to conspirators, even when they are dead, and the legal owner of the phone, Farook's employer, has given permission for its search.

The two CEOs meet the challenge adroitly with wildly inflamed language about rights and the slippery slope to losing those rights. In the NRA worldview, owning as many guns and as much ammunition as your credit limit affords is protected by the Second Amendment. Anything less is a fatal compromise of our Constitutional rights with dire consequences for all our freedom.

Related: Why Apple Is Going to War Over the FBI's 'Backdoor' Order

In the Apple worldview, if law enforcement can persuade a judge there is probable cause for a search warrant for the contents of an iPhone possessed by somebody like Farook, the ability to open the phone is the "software equivalent of cancer.'' Apple sees helping the cops with a search warrant for a criminal suspect's iPhone as the moral equivalent of assisting with waterboarding. It only requires three, maybe four deep breathes to realize it is the moral equivalent of a landlord giving detectives the key to the suspect's apartment.

Maybe Cook went to Burning Man and didn't drink enough water because his corporate-self aggrandizement is delusional. To understand what is going on here, the single most useful reading anybody can do is the federal court order requiring Apple to assist the FBI with a search warrant for Farook's iPhone.

The order is exquisitely granular in only mandating Apple help investigators get inside Farook's phone, as Apple did in previous criminal investigations involving earlier versions of iPhones. Apple argues, in essence, that since that ability no longer exists, whatever it reinvented to accomplish that could become universally available and then nobody is safe.

Meanwhile, Apple encourages you to put all your data on iCloud where it is sort of like a child playing unsupervised in the park. Probably safe, but you never know.

Related: Bill Gates Says Apple Should Cooperate With the FBI

Apple's hyperbolic Message to Our Customers came within one word of the truth when it stated, "They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.'' In the first place, cops with a warrant don't need a backdoor -- they are authorized to break down the front door -- but in any case Apple would have landed much closer to the truth if they'd written "They have asked us to build a backdoor to this iPhone.''

The message to Apple customers bizarrely warns "Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk.''

Let's ponder that for a second. The two people the FBI is investigating aren't hackers -- they are terrorists who opened fire with AR-15s on cowering innocents. Now Apple contends they must thwart the search warrant for Farook's iPhone because, in the long run, that avoids putting our personal safety to risk?

Much of the coverage of Apple's legal position paints Cook as a brave defender of civil liberties, which reveals much about the cocoon of the Silicon Valley C-suite and the wildly distorted measures of what qualifies as a threat and what stands as heroism to people who live their lives inside their smartphones.

Cook is no hero, and not just because of his insufferable self-righteousness and consummate solipsism. The judge who issued the order to Apple helpfully allowed that "to the extent Apple believes that compliance with this Order would be unreasonably burdensome, it may make application to this Court for relief within five business days.''

A federal judge allowed Apple to file an appeal, and it did. Cook is not particularly brave in the sense of risking anything. He is just an executive with a genius for marketing and branding who is shrewdly using his unlimited budget for lawyers to excite the true believers. By contrast, Edward Snowden lives in exile and faces prison in his homeland for exposing real government excesses in the aftermath of 9/11.

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, CEOs of Facebook and Twitter respectively, have been directly threatened by ISIS over blocked accounts terrorists used to recruit to potential suicide bombers in much the same way child molesters hunt emotionally vulnerable kids. Apple and Cook are likelier to have ISIS name an oasis in the caliphate after them.

Related: Entrepreneur Readers Chime in on Apple's Refusal to Unlock Shooter's iPhone

Apple has vowed to take their case as far in the courts as they can, including the Supreme Court, which might have nine sitting judges. Maybe not. There have been no vows about Cook going to jail defying any court orders when Apple loses and is ordered to give, or build, the key investigators need to serve a legitimate search warrant.

The NRA has succeeded in securing a constitutionally protected weapons market where terrorists and homicidal maniacs can shop indistinguishable from sane citizens. Neither the courts nor the Congress is going to allow Apple or anybody else to manufacture the smartphone equivalent of an assault rifle where our enemies can invisibly conspire against civilization. The only praise Tim Cook and Apple deserve is for starting the legal fight that will make that clear.

Peter Page

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Editor for Green Entrepreneur

Peter Page's journalism career began in the 1980s in the Emerald Triangle writing about the federally-funded Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. He now writes and edits for Green Entrepreneur.

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