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Apple's reality distortion field is losing against the terrorism distortion field

Apple's reality distortion field is losing against the terrorism distortion field


Public opinion is not on Apple's side

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David McNew/Getty Images

The funny thing about the FBI and tech writers accusing Apple of refusing to hack the iPhone as a "marketing strategy" is that siding with terrorists is a bad strategy. Apple is not doing that, of course, but to understand how the All Writs Act and custom firmware impact the security and privacy of everyone in the world you have to look past four headlines that say APPLE REFUSES TO UNLOCK TERROR PHONE. Apple’s narrative may be no match for the terrorism debate, which warps everything in its path until it is a fearful distortion of reality.

The Pew Research Center interviewed 1,002 adults over the weekend and found that 51 percent of them believed Apple should unlock the iPhone for the FBI, while only 38 percent believed Apple should not unlock it. Pew says these opinions are based on at least a broad recognition of some of the facts of the case, and 75 percent of respondents said they’d heard at least a little about the news of a court ordering Apple to unlock an iPhone. Knowing more about the case didn’t seem to shift opinion much which suggests that political dogma may be guiding responses.

Democrats and Republicans are aligned against Apple

But not partisan dogma. The most remarkable part of the Pew survey is that both Republicans and Democrats seem closely aligned against Apple. The survey found that among respondents, 56 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats believe that Apple should assist the FBI, meaning that the preference is cross-cutting. It is also politically advantageous. Last year FiveThirtyEight took a different Pew study showing that Americans are really worried about terrorism and reasoned that because people vote according to their "top issue," Republicans could benefit. It’s now 2016, and Republican presidential candidates are competing to destroy ISIS, a competition Apple is now finding itself sucked into. Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, has called for a boycott of Apple until it cooperates with the FBI.

Apple is stuck in a difficult position because of decisions it made years ago. In 2014 many of the company’s most valuable customers had their nude photos stolen from iCloud, forcing Apple to focus on security. Then Tim Cook crowned himself king of privacy, which is fine when you’re between Google and Microsoft and not the FBI and terrorists. Now, Apple has decided to go up against the same obstinate monolith of US national security interests that helped a Bush get reelected and turned the National Security Agency into a mythological all-seeing eye. It’s not clear who’s going to win that fight.

"It's about the victims and justice"

The FBI has already shown its hand and is on the attack. Director James Comey made a full-throated appeal to humanity over the weekend, writing in Lawfare that the fight against Apple "is about the victims and justice," and that failure would mean not being able to "look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror." The problem for Apple is that this sentiment is probably felt both by many agents in the government and members of the public, as the Pew survey shows. The head of the NYPD took the occasion to write in The New York Times that Apple was being disingenuous and unreasonable, echoing district attorneys and local police across the country who also want to break into Apple's phone.

Apple and its allies are also going to be rudely awakened if they believe a nuanced argument about security and privacy for all can stand up against the assertion that all the FBI wants is for one terrorist’s phone to be unlocked. (In reality, it looks like the US government is trying to break into a bunch of phones.) The slippery slope toward Big Brother is already a lot to ask from the imaginations of people in the "I have nothing to hide" coalition. But more importantly, a substantial number of people just don’t seem to care even when they know for sure that they are being monitored by the government. When Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had been collecting everyone’s phone records, the US government rushed to discredit him and brand him as a traitor, and the public followed.

Public political opinion may have little impact on iPhone sales, but it is likely to have an impact on which laws are passed. Key members of Congress, including senate intelligence leaders Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), have signaled disapproval of Apple and are considering legislation to force compliance. Burr implied Apple was providing assistance to "murderers, pedophiles, drug dealers and the others" with its technology. Feinstein said Apple having an uncrackable system would be "a huge mistake."

Tim Cook may have sympathy from Silicon Valley minutemen like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai, but compliance with government requests has been the norm. Most major technology companies let the government bulldoze over them on national security issues. (Especially the carriers.) Apple is now in the middle of a divisive issue that most companies have carefully avoided, figuring that people in Washington are less likely to interfere in business if they express the friendly disposition of a rubber stamp. Since Snowden’s revelations, resistance to spying resulted in some reform on the reach of surveillance. But state interests are nothing if not patient, and the fight against protections like encryption are resurgent.

Steve Jobs may have chucked a sledgehammer at Big Brother in 1984 when he was fighting IBM, but in 2016 Apple is fighting a very different set of acronyms. The FBI is making a case many people find compelling, and Apple’s success is far from guaranteed.