Apple's warrant canary riddle: Cock-up, conspiracy, or anti-Google point-scoring

Please pick one, Tim

An age of Apple-flavored freedom?

It would be a nuclear option, but only a company like Apple could pull it off. The world's most valuable firm is one of the few corporate entities that can't easily be pushed around.

Apple, unusually, took a public swipe at Google amid the launch of iOS 8 on Tuesday. The iGiant claimed, "unlike competitors," it can't hand over encryption keys on iOS 8 devices because it doesn't store them centrally. Instead, the keys are generated from the passcode used to unlock the iPhone, iPad or iPod.

CEO Tim Cook reiterated the message on Thursday with an open letter that went over some of the details of Apple's new security policy. There will be no profiling of customer data in Cupertino, he claims, and no selling advertising based on keyword searches, and certainly no allowing Apple's servers to be trawled by the Feds. And iOS 8 lets you ditch Google for privacy-focused DuckDuckGo as the default search engine – another little dig at the advertising giant.

"I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will," he claimed.

It's a bold statement, and one that could prove very expensive. After all, Yahoo! was threatened by the government with $250,000-a-day fines (rising every week of noncompliance) if it refused to submit to the NSA's data-gathering programs.

On the other hand, Apple has huge wodges of cash thanks to its loyal fanbase, and a legal team that makes Perry Mason look like a rank amateur. It could hold its position, if it cared that much, for a considerable time, forcing the American government to justify its mass-snooping programs in the courts.

It's hard to swallow the suggestion that Apple would, merely on a matter of principle, mount a terribly expensive challenge to the Patriot Act and similar laws. There's little tangible reward for Apple for such an outlay.

However cynical you want to be, Apple's new stance as a self-styled privacy warrior has managed to rattle Google: the web giant has scrambled to say that it will enable iOS-style encryption by default in its Android OS – but the Chocolate Factory can't promise to keep users' data inviolate, nor guarantee that Samsung, LG or other Android phone manufacturers won’t allow surveillance on their handsets.

Attacking Google is not a new tactic – Microsoft tried something similar against the ad giant with its Scroogled campaign. Redmond was then left red-faced when Snowden documents showed it had been best buddies with the US government when it came to sharing personal data.

Tim Cook would love you to believe that Apple is doing everything to protect your privacy, even though the iOS 8 encryption conveniently keeps Apple out of the equation if the cops or g-men come knocking.

But if you want to be optimistic, it's worth remembering that parts of the Patriot Act, including the infamous Section 215, are up for renewal in June 2015. A messy court case against Apple, if it refused demands for data, could be just what the government doesn't want.

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