Apple’s privacy debate – a PR triumph?

On 16th February, California magistrate ordered Apple to give a helping hand to FBI in cracking open the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino’s shooters from last year. The steps that followed have sparked a major debate about privacy and have shifted the public focus on the company. The question is – is PR a part of these events as well?

According to PRWeek, Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, “said the FBI was planning to force Apple to build so-called backdoors – equivalent to a digital master key – into the iPhone using the All Writs Act of 1789”. Instead of quietly complying with the order, Apple decided to bet on “openness” and reached out to the online world to spark a debate, while at the same time refusing to comply with the court order.

“This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.” – Cook argued in the statement published on the Apple website. He pointed out that the backdoor in the operating system would be a short-handed solution, on the long term useful for criminals and hackers willing to compromise the security of Apple customers.

This move has sparked a new privacy debate, but has also been widely praised by data security specialists as well as technology experts on social media.

However, what I found intriguing was one tweet of someone considering how much of the statement could be seen just as PR…

And so, I began to wonder.

On the one hand, I think that the Apple Customer Letter represents what it seems to be a genuine concern from the CEO about not only his company, but about the values Apple represents, corporate identity as well as about its valued customers. It expresses care and encourages proactive public debate on the matter. It will also greatly contribute to Apple’s company / brand legacy and, however the case concludes, will create a precedent. On the other hand, however, it could be seen as a clever way to improve the image of Apple and raise the company’s stance on the market. By no means do I suggest that Apple does not “practice what they preach”, but I think there is more to the debate and refusal to comply than just pure customer service concern. Tim Cook’s move is clever business as well.

The refusal to comply with the FBI positions Apple’s CEO clearly pushed him on the mouths of news outlets (that’s never a bad thing, to be talked about, is it?). Also, no matter whether you’d prefer to call him an uncompliant citizen or a privacy knight, his letter helped to further distance Apple from Google (which later on supported Apple’s stance on the matter) and create a clear “Good Guy – Bad Guy” differentiation. This follows up on the divide between two companies, who have very different business models. What’s more, the compliance with FBI request could seriously put off some of Apple’s faithful customers (especially now, in the era of increased privacy concerns over data collection). Therefore, it seems only right for Apple to engage with the issue and provide their customers what they would expect.

I think that there are always two sides (if not more) to every debate. Seemingly simple Apple case, for instance, seems to be the fight between what’s right and what’s necessary to begin with. However, this example shows that it is always worth to dig deeper and to try to analyse current events in order to understand various perspectives that can be taken to crack them. However the Apple vs. FBI case may conclude, it’s worth tracking it to understand how complicated and fascinating the world of communications could be.


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