February 18, 2016

· Apple · Nerdery · Politics

The FBI obtained a court order requiring Apple to unlock an iPhone 5C belonging to the San Bernardino killer. A public letter from Tim Cook lays out the grounds for Apple’s refusal. The debate about this conflict is developing quickly on both the technical side of things and the public policy side.

As a sidelight to this debate, I want to ask why is it that Apple, of all companies, is the one taking such a strong stand on this issue? It’s clear that Apple wants to resist the court order because of the precedent it would set—essentially requiring firms to break the security on their own products when investigators demand it. But that doesn’t answer my question. Why is Apple, specifically, fighting so hard on this?

You might think it’s because Silicon Valley companies are all run by liberal-to-libertarian types who hate the Government. But the muted response from the rest of the industry—as seen for instance, the milquetoast tweets from Google’s Sundar Pichai—suggests that Silicon Solidarity against the Feds is not that strong. Alternatively, you might think that Apple itself has some kind of principled or cultural commitment to individual freedom. Bear in mind that the company was run for much of its history by one of the country’s leading petty tyrants. More substantively, haven’t you heard critics complain for decades that Apple’s “walled garden” approach to its products is hostile to users and their freedom to tinker with the devices they buy? Indeed, just last week Apple was being widely criticized for “Error 53”, as iPhones bricked themselves rather than allow the home button (and Touch-ID sensor) be replaced by independent (and cheaper), third party repair services. As this week’s events have made clear, however, sometimes the third-party repair service is the FBI. And this brings us to what I think is the real reason Apple is at the center of this controversy.

At its core, Apple knows it’s a hardware company. In fact, in many ways, Apple is the only serious consumer hardware company left in the Valley. Everyone else is selling services, first, and maybe some hardware second. But people buy products from Apple—physical devices. Sure, they buy services as well. But I think we all know that many of those services don’t work as well as those offered by competitors. And in any case, in comparison to the revenue from the devices, the services aren’t worth much. Because hardware is at the core of their business, Apple knows its true customer is the person who buys the device. And so—I think pushed mostly by competition on the hardware side from Google in particular, and the Android platform in general—they have bet their future on users trusting their hardware as much as possible. In particular, they want users to trust that Apple is in a sales relationship with them, and not with advertisers, data aggregators, or anyone else. They want to differentiate their product from their main competitors—essentially, Google—who really are in the business of selling or giving your information to third parties.

The result is that, because of its core business interest, Apple is fortifying its Walled Garden, and trying to repel efforts by the State to put a secret tunnel in somewhere, or a door that can be opened whenever an authority asks. And they are betting that customers will want to be inside the Walled Garden, or in effect have one of their own in the form of their phone. The twist, of course, is that for the longest time we’ve thought of that metaphor in terms of a firm trapping everyone inside its own systems. That’s not what it means anymore. Hackers and activists and many other people have wanted ubiquitous strong crypto for such a long time. With the exception of purchasing, it’s barely evident in the lives of ordinary consumers. Now we find Apple is working as fast as it can to make phones they themselves can’t break into—even with physical access to the device. And these devices, on current trends, will be cheap, ever more widely available, and the most common means of interpersonal communication. No wonder the Feds hate that prospect.

Apple has historically been a company with a strong desire for control and a keen eye towards its own interests, as perceived in the light of that desire to control things. That has led them to the “Walled Garden” in the older sense. The company is a bit friendlier than before, these days, but in many ways as controlling as it ever was. Now it seems that their central business interest is leading them to actually enact the vision of strongly-encrypted, private computing devices, whose content is inaccessible even to their manufacturer—and all in the face of direct opposition from the State. That’s something that many soi disant Valley anarchists have claimed to have wanted for a long time. But most of them work for or founded companies that are in the business of collecting and selling information, not hardware. Apple is a hardware company. And that’s why they’re out in front of this.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.

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