Tim Cook goes off-script describing FBI iPhone backdoor request as 'cancer'


Say what you like about Apple, one thing is for sure -- it is one of the most scripted and tightly-controlled companies in existence. Everything is stage-managed to within an inch of its existence. Leaks about upcoming releases are rare, and there is a tight rein on the media and who has access to its products for review. So when the FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter it was hardly surprising that the company was a little shaken and unprepared.

This was a media situation Apple was not in control of. Tim Cook has gone on the offensive in recent days, defending his company's decision not to help the FBI, and in a new interview with ABC News the CEO referred to the request to unlock the phone as requiring "software that we view as sort of the equivalent of cancer" -- something of a shocking thing to say when you consider the cause of death of his predecessor, Steve Jobs.

Talking to ABC News anchor David Muir, Cook defended his decision not to comply with the FBI's requests, saying "we need to stand tall, and stand tall on principle". But many will be somewhat taken aback by his decision to describe the software the FBI is asking Apple to write as being the "equivalent of cancer". In the wake of Steve Jobs' death -- the ripples of which can still be felt -- it will be seen as a glib, offhand, bad taste comment.

One can only imagine the repercussions for a more-lowly Apple employee caught saying the same to the media. But of course his time it's ok, because it's Tim Cook. He can get away with anything.

Apple's argument against working with the FBI has altered slightly since the issue first arose. Cook managed to get a lot of undecided people on board -- as well as publicizing the issue -- with his open letter that made endless references to encryption and Apple's unwillingness to compromise user security and privacy. He is now using rather different language to make his point. In addition to his cancer reference, he said:

I think safety of the public is incredibly important -- safety of our kids, safety of our family is very important. The protection of people's data is incredibly important, and so the trade-off here is we know that doing this could expose people to incredible vulnerabilities.

Apple is using this as a PR platform. It may care about the principles involved, it may not. What's important is that it is seen to care. So why won’t Apple write backdoor software for the FBI?

We think it’s bad news to write. We would never write it. We have never written it [...] This is not something we would create. This would be bad for America. It would also set a precedent that I believe many people in America would be offended by.

He then shifts from PR mode to fear-mongering mode:

If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they could ask us to write -- maybe it's an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for the law enforcement to turn on the camera. I don't know where this stops. But I do know that this is not what should be happening in this country.

By all means support Apple's stance. By all means agree with not granting the FBI backdoor access to data. But never forget that Apple is using this to its advantage. It's free advertising, and Cook is lapping it up.

Photo credit: Marco Prati / Shutterstock

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