Clever PR Resounds in the FBI-Apple Debate

February 22, 2016


Most of the time technology PR is rather straightforward. You’ve got a dynamic new service offering or disruptive app or platform that gets released, you work hard to engage journalists and industry watchers to take notice, and then coverage happens. My Silicon Valley-client, is a perfect example. This month we officially launched its dynamic new early-stage funding platform and saw a steady progression of favorable press. On the other hand, when digital technology circumstances becomes complex, PR becomes more intricate. This couldn’t be truer than what's unfolding between the FBI (and Justice Department) and Apple Computer. Regardless of where you side on this complex issue, the FBI and Apple are presenting very public arguments, legal motions, and compelling statements that cleverly appeal to public opinion. 


For the FBI and the justice department, the ask, or demand, seems simple enough, have Apple help them by writing software that circumvents the encryption of a locked iPhone, used by the person responsible for the San Bernardo mass attack last December.  By writing software that creates a version of iOS that essentially bypasses existing security, Apple could ostensibly assist the FBI access data stored on the attacker’s iPhone. With more details from the attacker's phone it may reveal crucial details about future attacks, the identities of other terrorists, etc.  From this viewpoint, anything and everything a private company might do to help and support the government's investigation about the December attack, and help maintain national security, is being presented as reasonable and appealing to a concerned and sympathetic public. 


For Apple, its stance is that if they were to comply with the justice department’s order to write software that essentially hacks its iPhone’s encryption to access the data of the attacker's iPhone under investigation, it would potentially expose millions of other iPhone users' data. Apple CEO’s Tim Cook’s open letter to customers says as much citing how significantly data security would be at risk. He also describes how the simple ask by the justice department is anything but routine.  The letter exposes a dangerous precedent that would be set if Apple complied and warns of the tremendous unfavorable impact it will have for customers and the public's privacy and data security.


All in all, it is easy to understand both points of view. With Apple and the FBI and the Justice Department each weighing in with a very public showdown of declarations and statements, it’s clear how public relations is helping shape opinion. With a Capitol Hill hearing, the issue will take on epic proportions and become defining moment for digital technology.


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