FBI vs. The Apple: iPhone Encryption Battle

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The battle lines are clear: the FBI is using the courts to try to force Apple to write malware that will provide a backdoor into the iPhone the Feds recovered at the recent San Bernardino terrorist shootings – but Apple is fighting the order tooth and nail, as such malware would weaken privacy protections for all Apple customers.

While American citizens all sympathize with the FBI’s desire to investigate such an attack, they are also understandably reluctant to allow the government to have the power to spy on us. But regardless of where you stand on this controversy, there is an aspect of this story that enterprises must understand.

As consumers, when we interact with a large company, we usually expect that company to control all the data regarding our relationship with it. Our credit card companies know how we use our cards – the vendors we frequent, what we purchase, and how much we spend. Our airlines know our itineraries, and nothing we do on their web sites or in their mobile apps is secret from them.

When law enforcement has a bona fide reason to request such information from a company, and goes through the due process necessary to ensure our constitutional rights, we generally have few qualms about the company providing such information.

After all, we’ve all watched enough cop dramas to know the police routinely access credit card, phone, and airline records in the course of their investigations – and as long as they confine their efforts to the bad guys, we’re mostly OK with their techniques.

The situation that Apple finds itself in this time, however, is quite different from those routine law enforcement requests of big companies. In this case, the encryption-based privacy capabilities of the iPhone are an integral part of the products that Apple sells to its customers. And an essential characteristic of those products is the fact that even Apple itself doesn’t know – and furthermore, doesn’t have the ability to know – what data customers have in the private areas of their iPhones.

What’s so remarkable about this fact is just how rare it is for a large consumer brand to build such a feature into its products, and furthermore, how important such a feature is for its customers. Your credit card company, after all, will only keep your secrets to a limited extent – reporting to credit bureaus is routine, and it’ll acquiesce to any legal subpoena without so much as an eye blink. We as consumers take such limits of corporate secret-keeping for granted.

Apple, in contrast, isn’t simply promising to keep its customers’ secrets. It’s promising to prevent itself from ever knowing its customers’ secrets – and then it’s selling that promise to its customers as a feature of its products.

It’s time for other enterprises to take note of this important distinction – because it’s clear today’s customer understands, and is willing to pay for the difference. The definition of digital is the fact that customer desires and preferences are driving enterprise technology decisions, and how to handle your customers’ secrets is one of the most important decisions your company will ever have to make.

Given this digital context, Apple’s battle with the FBI takes on new meaning. While Apple’s motivations may seem altruistic – and of course, in many ways they are – what Apple is really doing is protecting its brand.

A brand, after all, is the promise to customers that the quality and features of products will live up to customer expectations. Apple’s relinquishment of its ability to know customers’ secrets, for better or worse, is now part of that brand promise. In such a light, Apple has no choice but to fight the FBI. Does your company have the same courage?

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