Values-based Leader: Timothy D. Cook, CEO of Apple

(Tags:  Leadership, Heroes)

I have been collecting articles over the past weeks about the federal government’s demands for Apple to develop a back-end entry software program for them to break into the iPhone of the now deceased terrorist in the San Bernardino attack.

The one thing I have observed in the past years, and especially in the past weeks, is that Mr. Cook is a very thoughtful man who cares deeply about his customers and mission of Apple.  He deeply believes that Apple is primarily a hardware company and wants to honor the confidentiality of the data of their customers. He was the right arm of Steve Jobs and was grossly underestimated as the next CEO of this dynamic company.  But, he has proven the pessimists wrong and has instead demonstrated strong, innovative, and effective leadership. He is the humble, competent, and inclusive leader of the future.

The Federal Government has been making accusations that the CEO’s refusal to provide the feds with a back door to release phone data is simply a marketing strategy.  For years, I have heard Mr. Cook speak proudly about honoring their customer’s data. This is unlike many of the other Silicon companies that freely use customer data and share it with others.

Yes, Mr. Cook could probably go to jail for his refusal to develop and hand over the key, especially now that the President has sided with the FBI’s request. I do not agree with the President’s decision. For Edward Snowden demonstrated the immense magnitude of surveillance of the American people as well as those from other countries. Why would Mr. Cook give the feds open access to the data of the majority of his customers? The point here is that since past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, the claim of the feds to use the key this one time is preposterous.  Here are some numbers to demonstrate what would happen if Mr. Cook gave them a key: Apple Still Holds the Keys to Its Cloud Service, but Reluctantly, Mike Isaac, New York Times, February 22, 2016.

  • During the first half of 2015, Apple received nearly 11,000 requests from government agencies around the world regarding information on roughly 60,000
  • Apple provided some data in roughly 7,100 of those requests.
  • So these numbers clearly expose the myth of the “oh, it’s just this once, so be cooperative” approach.

The big opportunity for Mr. Cook came in 2014 when an update to Apple’s iOS software made data retrieval from a locked device impossible to achieve. Mr. Cook claims Apple is a hardware company that will not use the data of customers. This reflects the values of Apple’s leader. The feds cannot simply say his beliefs are a marketing ploy because the decision embodies integrity, customer loyalty, and strong leadership.

There is an opportunity, at this moment, for the feds if the San Bernardino terrorist backed up his data on the iCloud.  When a device owner backs up a device on the Apple iCloud, that data is still retrievable at the present time. However, many believe it is only a matter of time until Apple is able to make iCloud data irretrievable.

Timothy D. Cook is clearly taking a pure position of privacy for customers because of the surveillance exposed by Snowden and then because the magnitude of requests would require a company division of enormous size and expense to respond effectively. Or for the federal government possessing a key would just apply it on any number of devices desired as the past numbers reveal.

Now the Feds are asking Apple to give them the back door key to obtain data on devices and probably any future data locked in iCloud.  Mr. Cook is the guardian of Apple. If the feds controlled the key, surely it could get grossly over-used.  So what can Timothy Cook do?

I do agree with President Obama that there should be access to iPhone data for terrorist threats and actual plots carried out like occurred at San Bernardino. So here are the ideas I came up with while thinking about potential compromises:

  1. Assume that iCloud will eventually be locked like devices.
  2. So how can the Federal government get access to data on emergent cases? There has to be specific criteria for such a case with parameters. For example, annualize the data above for 2014 and we are talking about 120,000 devices just for that year and 22,000 requests. Wow, I would be locking my systems and protecting my clients confidentiality in that case. So develop criteria for unlocking to be something like: a clear and documented threat to American lives. If the event has already occurred like San Bernardino, a single unlocking can occur.
  3. Only Apple can unlock a device in the emergent case. There are coders who talk about state of the art methods of unlocking where the capability could disappear after seconds or minutes that would keep hackers or insiders from releasing the key to anyone (Times Readers Have Their Say on the Debate Over Apple, Marie Tae McDermott, New York Times, February 19, 2016). Matthew Schenker, a coder, suggests there is always a way to code something with ethical limitations. For example, Apple could create a temporary, self-destructing device ID that must be issued from Apple and is only accessible within a certain time frame and with a certain algorithm.  Apple could hold that temporary ID and grant access on a case by case basis, rendering the ‘back door’ useless without it. Maybe only Mr. Cook has the trigger for the unlock that can only be used if all agreed upon criteria are met.  However, in no way can the unlocking capability ever be in the control of anyone besides Mr. Cook or future Apple CEOs.
  4. Right now the feds are asking for Apple to give them the capability. Really? I am not sure how the President can support that position. But I do believe that if there are clear criteria established by both Apple and the Feds, then this is possible. Possibly an upper limit of a low number of devices and requests per year (i.e. say 20 devices and 10 requests as an example for only absolutely urgent reasons).
  5. So I say with the history of overreaching from the feds, there has to be tight criteria for unlocking. Control of the key has to be in Mr. Cook’s hands. His fears may come true if an aggressive federal leader wants the unlock turned over in the future. If that happens, the CEO must be allowed to destroy the unlock capability.

What do you think? We are having very important ethical discussions about the future of the country. The history of totalitarian governments includes their use of citizen’s data against their people.  Let’s follow the lead of Timothy D. Cook, who I consider a hero for this blog. Let the feds ask him to unlock only if agreed upon criteria are met that protect the confidentiality of his customers. Let’s learn from him as a teacher and as a CEO. But for now the only way to assure confidentiality of your Apple device data is to forgo using iCloud as long as the solution to this disagreement is not in place.  Let’s hope that Mr. Cook does not go to prison over his vital opinions and practices.  This would be denigrating to us all and completely unacceptable. But, one could think that he would go to jail with honor as the guardian of his valued customers’ data.



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