Apple Speaks—Will People Listen?

Tim_Cook_WWDC_2012There’s a good chance that in the last couple of days, you may have woken up to one of your friends posting about Apple’s customer letter which was published a few days ago. The letter outlines Apple’s stance against the government’s request for allowing a back door to iPhones and the company’s commitment to using encryption and protecting their users’ privacy. It’s been quickly making its way around social media. The cynical side of me wants to say that this has been going on for months, and people should already know about it. I mean, I even wrote an article about Apple’s statements in court, as well as one about encryption scares in the wake of terrorist attacks. But the average Joe doesn’t follow court cases or read articles on technical subjects. Most people just aren’t interested in that stuff. That’s why Apple’s letter is such a big deal.

Though Apple has spoken in court about this, and numerous articles have been written about Apple and about privacy and encryption in general in recent months, this customer letter is the first time, to my knowledge, that Apple has made its own public statement about the issue. Anyone who owns an Apple product is going to be much more likely to read a letter addressed to them from the company itself. So far, that seems to be what is happening. I’ve seen more people talking about this letter than the court trial Apple was involved in or any articles about that. But is this enough?

I’ve been trying to gauge the public’s reaction to the post. For the most part, it has seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. But I have seen a few instances of those who would take the government’s side over Apple’s. It seems to me that the people who don’t understand the importance of what Apple and other companies have been doing to protect their privacy simply don’t understand how the underpinning technology works.

From the bits and pieces of the Presidential debate that I have been unfortunate enough to have seen, ignorance seems to be one of the biggest contributing factors to this way of thinking, even within political spheres. Presidential candidates (who should know better) are advocating for more government access to personal data in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s all driven by ignorance and fear. It would be extremely sad if lack of knowledge and fear could cause the very people Apple is doing the most to protect, to turn on them when the thing they should fear most is lack of protection.

Thankfully, the response has for the most part been very positive and supportive of the stance Apple has taken. I think Apple did a pretty nice job of explaining the situation to those with little technical or legal background, and they have also managed to get the message out to a lot of people who hadn’t yet heard it. But this kind of news still manages to get eclipsed by the latest tweets from Kanye West and Justin Bieber. Even if everybody was talking about it though, public opinion isn’t always enough to deter the government. According to Apple’s letter, the FBI “is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789” to get its way.

I imagine that dealing with privacy and technology will probably be looked back on as the most important issue of our age. Even the former NSA Director thinks this is dangerous ground for the FBI to be treading. History is unfolding in real time before our eyes. I’m glad that companies like Apple are saying what needs to be said. I just hope that people are listening.