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Is Apple’s stand against the FBI putting the brand at risk?

by | Feb 19, 2016 | Branding, Crisis Communications, Technology

I used to work in a video rental store (remember those?). In later years, we had software that kept track of all our customers’ rental histories, in part so we could learn their tastes and recommend other titles. Back then, the employees and customers understood that we would safeguard that information—unless we were presented with a warrant from law enforcement. Today, Amazon and other online retailers keep a record of your purchases, which they too are obligated to make available with a legal search warrant.

Just as the FBI can dig into your video store rental records or library loan history or purchase history at Amazon in an active investigation, they feel they have the right to search the cell phones of suspected terrorists; to wit, those who killed innocent people in San Bernardino. A federal court agrees.

But Apple isn’t having any of it. In part, it insists, hacking its own customer would set a dangerous precedent. Also—and this is no small thing—it says the technology to do so would have to be created to fulfill the FBI’s request, and it’s not planning to do that. Tim Cook wrote, in an open letter to Apple’s customers:

“Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

This is a hugely complex issue, one that could set a precedent either way it plays out, and I can waste a lot of space debating both sides of it. Suffice it to say, from a public relations point of view—the only angle I’m qualified to write from—Apple’s stand is a huge miscalculation.

Cook wants to have it both ways. He goes on record saying all the right things:

“We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists.”

But further down, he says something that will be sure to rankle everyone who truly believes searching the phone of a dead murderer is the proper course of action:

“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

I’ll leave the technical issues to others; again, they can be argued all day. But I believe that the average citizen concerned with his or her safety is OK with hacking one or two cell phones, with the peace of mind that Apple is more than capable of keeping its own proprietary genie in the bottle.

There are many millions of loyal Apple customers who will feel vested in this fight because they have a phone containing a lot of personal information, and will applaud the company’s vigorous defense of their data. I get that. But there are millions more who aren’t, like Android users for example (I am one). For these people, who far outnumber iPhone loyalists, the company could appear to be blocking a reasonable and standard investigative avenue, on the basis of a nebulous technical argument.

Whether it’s true or not, I think most people believe Apple can develop a hack in the time it takes to sell a thousand iPhones, and has the means to safeguard that tool, squirrel it away until the next subpoena, or even come up with a fix to obviate it soon after. It need not be a Pandora’s Box that will forever threaten the privacy of every iPhone user.

That perception—regardless of the reality—is what Apple really needs to worry about. To its benefit, Apple has earned a lot of consumer goodwill, makes products that are loved, and is a master at generating positive media, in spite of several negative reports about the company and its labor practices over the years. That might be the footing Tim Cook is relying on as he takes this hard line, softened with some of the “right” words.

The FBI contends this isn’t part of a grand plan or sweeping threat to privacy.

“It’s not about us trying to get a back door,” said FBI Director James Comey. “I don’t want a door, I don’t want a window, I don’t want a sliding glass door.  I would like people to comply with court orders.”

By stiffening its back against a government widely believed to be untrustworthy in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures about spying, Apple is counting on rallying its customer base around its cause. But in doing so, it risks alienating those potential customers who want to feel safe in their daily lives, who support using all means at our disposal to fight terrorism, including domestic terrorists. It might be a short-term victory, but it may turn out to be a pyrrhic one.

Guest writer Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J.

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Gary Frisch
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. He is also the author of “Strike Four,” a novel about minor league baseball. Visit the firm online at Swordfish Communications.

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