To anyone who has ever unwittingly signed over their firstborn children by clicking the constantly shifting “Agree to Terms of Conditions” in iTunes—or anyone who has ever wanted to use a smartphone without wondering how old the child was who made it—is aware the Apple corporation as it exists in the year 2016 is not necessarily known for its customer-friendly practices. Which is why it was remarkable Wednesday when Apple CEO Tim Cook fought back against an order from the federal government in defense of millions of Apple customers. It was a brave call. And in any year we would all be celebrating Cook. But not this year.
In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, a federal magistrate Tuesday ordered Apple to create special software for an iPhone connected with the case that would allow investigators to bypass Apple’s security without wiping the phone clean (which is what the phone is designed to do in the wake of such a security breach). Cook reacted swiftly and strongly with a public letter to customers, claiming, “The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
While one should be careful of ascribing too much altruism to Cook’s motives—it is to his benefit that not only Apple look customer-friendly, but also that the government stay out of his business—it is undeniable that his statement is an important line in the sand from a tech company against government surveillance and the increasing creep of institutionalized eradication of personal privacy. Many tech experts believe such a move by Apple, or any tech company, is long overdue.
“If the FBI gets a warrant to search a house and the people who own it say okay, there’s no ambiguity about whether it can search the house,” Gizmodo's Kate Knibbs wrote Wednesday. “But if the FBI comes across a safe in that house, the warrant and permission do not mean it can force the company that manufactures the safe to create a special tool for opening its safes, especially a tool that would make other safes completely useless as secure storage. That’s the situation that Apple’s dealing with here.”
In other words: Apple is on the side of the private customer against illegal searches and seizures. One might even call the move, politically, libertarian, conservative…anti-government.
In most news cycles, this would give Apple a wave of good publicity. The billion-billion-billion-dollar company fighting for its customers against government invasion of their private data, digging a trench in what’s expected to be a long, ugly war between two powerful interests trying to figure out the ethics and legality of an extremely new technology. Apple is on your side here. For once.
But Apple and Cook forgot one thing: We're in the middle of a presidential election cycle, a particularly lunatic one being led, in the polls and in the news, by a man who has taken the knee-jerk, facile, instantaneous reaction and turned it into an art form.
When Donald Trump was asked about Apple’s decision, Trump did not bring up the complexity of the situation, the constant battle between government and individual, between private and public selves, between technology and law enforcement. He did not commend Apple for trying to stave off government’s incursion into our personal details. He did what Trump does: He came up with the easiest, simplest, basest possible reaction to an endlessly complicated issue, and he ran with it.
On Fox & Friends this morning, Trump said, “To think that Apple won't allow us to get into her cellphone? Who do they think they are? No, we have to open it.”
“I agree 100 percent with the courts,” he said. “In that case, we should open it up. I think security overall—we have to open it up. And we have to use our heads. We have to use common sense. Somebody the other day called me a common-sense conservative. We have to use common sense. Our country has so many problems.”
This is classic Trump. Take an issue that requires more time and thought than he—and the average American—is willing to give it, take a strong, unequivocal stance on it and then segue into the stump points of “common sense” and “I’m gonna fix all the problems in this country.” It is extraordinarily unlikely that Trump knew any details of the case, or Apple’s view: The release had just come out this morning, mere minutes before Trump’s appearance. And his explanation didn’t make much sense: As The Verge noted, what Trump was basically saying is that Apple should create a technology—remember, this technology does not currently exist—that could break into any locked phone…but that it should only be used this one time. The notion is absurd to anyone who has looked at the issue for longer than five seconds. One can believe that the government should have the right to get into locked phones. One can believe that the tech companies are right to block them. But the idea that Apple should build this technology for this one particular incident is not intellectually serious in any sense of the word. (It’s not even something the government is claiming!) This is the view of someone who is just talking.
But that didn’t stop Trump, because it has never stopped Trump. He hit Cook and Apple as hard as he hits Ted Cruz, or President Barack Obama, or poor Jeb Bush. And it has already changed the conversation. Now that Trump has weighed in—as much as you can classify what he did as “weighing in”—other candidates are being asked the question, and the whole issue is being filtered through Trump’s reaction, rather than the facts and complexities of the case.
Much has been made of how Trump has remade politics these last nine months simply by leading the media around by the nose, by understanding how to inject himself into any issue and make it entirely about himself. Apple and Tim Cook are now learning this strategy is not limited to the presidential campaign. Trump hijacked their principled stance and made it entirely his own. It is staggering how good at this he has become.
—Will Leitch reports for Bloomberg Politics on the intersection of politics and media.