Reboot 2016 Top Management: Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
Reboot 2016 Top Management: Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

When Apple CEO Tim Cook refused to comply with a federal court order to aid the FBI in cracking an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, he took a strong stand for privacy and put tech companies on the offense regarding how far they should be expected to go to meet government demands for help…and for data.

The case, which arose earlier this year, had greater implications than simply access to data and was seen by many as the FBI's attempt to set an ominous precedent and had, in Cook's own words, “implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” 

Sheri Pym, a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California, ordered the tech company to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to help law enforcement access encrypted data on the iPhone 5c used by shooter Farook Syed. Included in that reasonable assistance was Apple's use of its exclusive expertise to bypass the auto-erase function on the phone so that FBI investigators could input an unlimited number of passcodes as they attempted to unlock the iPhone of the killers.

“Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily,” according to the Justice Department's initial filing, which U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker, the chief federal law enforcement officer in the Central District of California, referred to as “a potentially important step – in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino.”

But Apple didn't have the will to heed the court's order and Cook's reaction was swift. That same evening, he penned a letter to customers and posted it to the company's website that said “the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”

Self-serving? Yes. Most certainly Apple doesn't want to give away the keys to the kingdom. And, the company can point to its strong stance against government intrusion – coming from the top – as a differentiator among its competitors (most of whom were quick to support the Cupertino, Calif.-based giant) after documents released during the Edwin Snowden leaks revealed just how easily many carriers and tech companies had capitulated to government demands.

In fact, since the documents pilfered by Snowden from the National Security Agency (NSA) that revealed the extent of NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens and a certain complicity between government investigators and Silicon Valley companies, Apple, Google, Twitter, AT&T and the like have spent a lot of time and effort distancing themselves from those ignominious revelations and shining light – through transparency reports and other initiatives – on government data requests. 

While the FBI eventually found another way to crack the phone used by Farook Syed and a password was provided by a third party in another case before a New York court, the battle is far from over. And Apple, under Cook's leadership, is expected to once again take a stand and lead the charge. The outcome of this fight – one that observers expect will make its way to the biggest ring of them all, the Supreme Court of the United States – will have long-lasting influence on privacy and more clearly define the boundaries of governmental reach.

Cook, himself with an activist heart (he's taken up privacy and LGBTQ issues), has brought privacy front and center. His straight arrow, steady and calming reasonableness are a counter to the mercurial, visionary Steve Jobs who he replaced at Apple's helm after Jobs grew too ill to lead.

“Tim is unwavering in his support of an individual's right to privacy,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) wrote of Cook last year in Time's 100 Influential People. That's high praise indeed, from the noted civil rights leader who as a young man marched with Martin Luther King Jr. over the famed Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Whether or not it eventually delivers a knockout punch to the FBI efforts, Apple has another fight on its hands: Winning the support of the public. Cook believes Apple will prevail there.

“Over the past week I've received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support,” he wrote in a letter to customers earlier this year. “One email was from a 13-year-old app developer who thanked us for standing up for ‘all future generations.' And a 30-year Army veteran told me, ‘Like my freedom, I will always consider my privacy as a treasure.'”

Click here for the next Top Management pick Sam Palmisano, vice chairman, Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity