Tim Cook: A back door for the good guys is a back door for the bad guys

Technically Incorrect: Apple's CEO says that encryption is "a must" in today's world. He believes that everyone is coming around to that view. Except, perhaps, the FBI.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Tim Cook, defender of privacy. Josh Miller/CNET

I get the sense that the FBI doesn't entirely appreciate Apple CEO Tim Cook.

I get that sense from an interview he gave to NPR on Thursday. In it, he cogently explained Apple's attitude toward security in general and national security in particular.

Cook repeated his view that Apple isn't interested in tracking its customers as infinitum from app to app.

"If you buy something from the App Store, we do know what you bought from the App Store, obviously," he said. "We think customers are fine with that. Many customers want us to recommend an app. But what they don't want to do, they don't want your email to be read, and then to pick up on keywords in your email and then to use that information to then market you things on a different application that you're using."

This respect for privacy, which he has previously called an issue of morality, extends to his dealings with national security agencies.

"National security always matters, obviously," he said, when asked about Apple's conversations with these agencies and their desire for a so-called back door to Apple's systems. "But the reality is that if you have an open door in your software for the good guys, the bad guys get in there, too."

Yes, you can only securely stop a bad guy if you securely keep the good guys out too.

Cook said that a back door is "a non-starter." He admitted, though, that the government does come to Apple "from time to time" in order to get information. Or at least try.

"If they ask in a way that is correct, and has been through the courts as is required, then to the degree that we have information, we give that information," he said. The problem is, though, that Apple encrypts a lot of your information and instead of transferring it to its servers, it makes sure it stays on your device.

Cook suggested that the NSA isn't so desperate to have a back door. However, he said: "There have been different conversations with the FBI, I think, over time."

His own view is that "everyone's coming around to some core tenets. And those core tenets are that encryption is a must in today's world."

But Apple's in the hardware business, critics say. It's easy for Cook to sound righteous. Software from other companies passes through Apple's devices. Those companies might have different security standards.

"Our view on this comes from a values point of view, not from a commercial interest point of view," Cook insisted. "Our values are that we do think that people have a right to privacy. And that our customers are not our products. We don't collect a lot of your data and understand every detail about your life. That's just not the business that we are in."

These have been Cook's views for some time. Last year, he wrote an open letter explaining how Apple deals with personal information. There was a thinly-veiled criticism of Google in this. Earlier this year, he explained that he didn't accept governments' definition of security.

Total security is impossible, as companies and individuals discover every day.

Cook clearly believes that it is morally, as well as commercially, positive for his company to take this stance on privacy. In this interview, he described it as "a fundamental human right."

The real question is how many people really care. Or, perhaps, when they will start to care deeply.