Admin’s Note: Carreen Winters recently discussed this issue in The Wall Street Journal’s Crisis of the Week blog which is available here.
Apple’s high-stakes showdown with the Justice Department in the iPhone hack case is far more than a PR battle. It’s a deep-rooted ideological issue pitting privacy against national security, where PR plays a supporting role.
It’s not surprising the issue is deadlocked. Polls show the country divided over the National Security Agency’s PRISM (clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining) anti-terrorism program. The PRISM controversy suggests Apple must take a strong stand on privacy, while the FBI needs to develop a less controversial reason to hack a phone.
Today’s debate presents opportunities and risks for both sides. The FBI is using a straightforward argument, avoiding technical jargon that would make its case more complicated than it has to be. It has skillfully framed the issue in terms of keeping America safe by gathering information that could head off the next terrorism attack. It’s a good strategy.
Apple is up against a far greater challenge, which is balancing the interests of privacy and national security. The company must rally its supporters without appearing to stonewall the FBI or being tone-deaf to both the victims and families of the San Bernardino attack and those who believe Apple is somewhat unpatriotic or naïve to withhold information that could prevent terrorism.
As a ubiquitous brand with 800 million IOS devices sold to date, Apple has much at stake. The company is relevant in the daily lives of Americans in a way that the FBI isn’t. The FBI has a job to do and cares little about its public image. For it, life goes on whichever way the case turns out. Apple though relies on consumer approval and trust to sell its products. It must defend its reputation via transparency and a broad public education campaign about its battle with the government and its impact on privacy.
The Apple/Justice Dept. debate has been a healthy and productive affair with both sides effectively rallying their respective base. The greater communication challenge will come after a decision is rendered, when one side of passionate believers will feel abandoned. When the case is ultimately decided, who will successfully assure Americans that neither their privacy nor security was compromised?