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Cook moves iPhone debate to FBI's weak ground: The media

Soundbites galore as Apple tries to shift public opinion in its favor

Analysis Tim Cook has moved the fervent debate over government access to an iPhone to what he hopes will be safer ground: the media.

In an interview with mainstream media outlet ABC, the Apple CEO has bathed journalists in a series of cleverly pitched soundbites in an effort to win public opinion on the issue.

Most eye-catching has been arguing that the software the FBI has requested through a court order is "the software equivalent of cancer." It's an instant headline.

But this one is also pretty good: "Some things are hard. And some things are right. And some things are both. This is one of those things."

If that wasn't sufficient prodding, the company has also put out its response to the federal court order [PDF] in which it reaches for the ultimate weapon: the First Amendment.

How exactly? Because computer code is speech. And so by insisting Apple create a version of iOS that will allow the FBI to break into the phone, it is compelling speech. We're no constitutional lawyers, but this strikes us as a less-than-watertight argument. But who cares when you can get headlines that say: "Order breaks First Amendment"?

According to Apple, the order also breaks the Fifth Amendment's due process clause by arbitrarily depriving Apple of its liberty. We're not so sure on this one either, but stop thinking for a second and write "the order is unconstitutional!"

They're coming for our phones

The third big message Apple is trying to get out there through the media is the concept that the government is coming for you too. Something that the NRA has used with spectacular results over gun rights issues.

How does it work in this case? Again, Cook in his interview with ABC: "What is at stake here is: can the government compel Apple to write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world, including the US."

Asked about whether he "struggles" with the idea that there are details on the phone that could reveal other terrorist plots, Cook offered this: "If we knew a way to get the information on the phone that we haven’t already given and that would not expose hundreds of millions of other people, we would obviously do it. But again this is not about one phone, this is about the future."

Later: "The smart phone that you carry has more information on it than any other singular device."

Cook also tried to hit on the American weakness for anything to do with its military, claiming that "the largest single category" of people that have emailed him pledging their support "are people from the military."


Why is Apple doing this? Two reasons.

First, the issue of where public opinion falls may be the ultimate decider of the case. The country is split and Apple needs political support if it is to challenge the authorities and win. Politicians are not going to stand up for something unless they believe majority public opinion is behind them.

Earlier this week, the first proper poll on the issue showed Apple losing out to the FBI: 51 per cent of Americans felt that Apple should unlock the phone, with 38 per cent saying it shouldn't. That was updated in a poll out Thursday by Reuters that showed 46 per cent of people said they agreed with Apple's decision to oppose the court order (35 per cent disagreed).

As to the question over whether the US government should have access to all phones to protect against terrorist attacks, that came out: 46 per cent agree; 42 per cent disagree.

In short, Apple needs to make its case and make it fast to move those numbers in its favor – and the early signs are that its messages are helping effect a shift.

The second reason Apple is doing this push: because the FBI sucks at the media.

It's safe ground for a well-oiled media machine like Apple, but people that work for the FBI are truly terrible on camera. Why? It's something to do with not being able to handle being challenged.


So the FBI's strategy has been to push the background to the phone in question – the San Bernardino shootings, widely accepted as an act of terrorism.

The families of victims of the shootings in San Bernardino have publicly said Apple should open up the phone. That led to one question.

The FBI director James Comey said the case was about 14 people that were killed. That led to another question. New York anti-terrorism head made a statement: that was another question.

Almost every other question was about the fact that the phone was used in a act of terrorism. That's why the FBI chose Syed Farook's iPhone 5C as opposed to the other 11 phones it currently also wants access to.

The equation is simple: terrorism is a greater fear than lack of privacy or uncertain future impacts. Apple is doing its best to push the latter argument and is using the media to make it. Will it be successful? This time next week we'll have a good idea. ®

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