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Fear of a hack is Apple's wild card in the encryption debate

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At today's announcement, Tim Cook tried to shift the focus back to protecting consumers

It’s been just over a month since a court ordered Apple to break security measures on the San Bernardino iPhone — and for most of the time since, the company has been scrambling to keep up. In the days after the order, Apple was slammed with bad press from cable news and other outlets. Since then, Tim Cook has done more interviews and appearances, but it’s always been pushing back against the anti-encryption narrative, never been on his own terms.

At Apple’s big event today, that changed. There’s no bigger homefield advantage than an Apple iPhone event, and Cook used it to try to reset the conversation on iPhone encryption. Speaking to Apple’s most devoted fans, he framed the legal fight as a necessary measure to protect user privacy.

Our products are such an important part of people’s daily lives, and with that comes a significant responsibility. So before we get started today, I’d like to address something that I know is on the minds of many people this morning. We built the iPhone for you, our customers, and we know that it is a deeply personal device. For many of us, the iPhone is an extension of ourselves. About a month ago, we asked Americans across the country to join in a conversation. We need to decide, as a nation, how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy.

I’ve been humbled and deeply grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve received from Americans across the country, from all walks of life. We did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government, but we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy. We owe it to our customers and we owe it to our country. This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility.

It’s a remarkable summary, mostly because of what it doesn’t say. Given the industry’s biggest bully pulpit, Cook didn’t mention the FBI, Congress, terrorism, or anything having to do with the law. Instead, the focus was squarely on protecting customers.

It’s an ugly world out there, and this is what we do to keep you safe

It’s a good argument for Apple, in part because it lets the company dodge questions of constitutional precedent and cut straight to the security issues in play. Apple engineers are working to keep iPhone data safe, the argument goes, and the San Bernardino order would make that fight harder. It’s true, and it plays on some of the biggest fears of the current moment. Our sensitive data is everywhere, lots of people are trying to steal it, and for the most part, companies are failing to keep it safe. Those threats might be less vivid than terrorism, but they’re much more likely to impact your day-to-day life, and Apple really is fighting to keep it from happening to you. In some ways, the company’s argument isn’t so different from what the FBI has been saying for decades: it’s an ugly world out there, and this is what we do to keep you safe.

That argument works well when you consider Apple’s good record on device security and software protection — but it works even better if you don’t think you’re safe at all. While iOS is one of the most secure operating systems there is, iCloud is another story entirely. It was only 18 months ago that online hooligans found a way to break into iCloud accounts with little more than social engineering and an account scraper, pulling nude photos of famous women and kicking off the infamous Celebgate breach. The incident still stands as a monumental invasion of privacy, one of the worst case scenarios for storing data in the cloud, and it happened on Apple’s watch. But knowing how bad it can get, do we want to make those accounts even harder to protect?

It’s a particularly important question as Apple heads to court tomorrow, defending its encryption policy before a judge for the first time, with product security chief Eric Neuenschwander set to testify and be cross-examined. The big legal question is how much of a burden the order represents for Apple, but so far, the company’s customers have been largely left out of the conversation, derided by prosecutors as a simple marketing concern. Cook wants to change that conversation, making it more about data security and less about the war on terror. We won’t have to wait long to find out if the judge will follow his lead.