Bad journalism hurts.
Is Tim Cook making a mountain out of a molehill?
That’s the implication behind a story that appeared in the Daily Beast Wednesday and was eagerly picked up by news outlets large and small. It claimed that Apple has unlocked iPhones for law enforcement dozens of times before—doing on a routine basis what it now so publicly refuses to do.
So kudos to Techcrunch’s Matthew Panzarino for taking the time to dismantle this meme, piece by piece, in No, Apple Has Not Unlocked 70 iPhones For Law Enforcement.
At the heart of the misunderstanding is the difference between extracting data from an iPhone without unlocking it, which Apple (aapl) was able to do before iOS 8, and building a tool for the FBI to crack a locked iPhone. It’s a subtle but critical distinction. (Note the correction at the bottom of the front page story in today’s New York Times.)
What’s interesting to me is how quick some reporters were to pick up an angle that made Apple—and its defense of strong cryptography—not just wrong, but hypocritical.
Which reporters? Here they are:
- Shane Harris, The Daily Beast: Apple Unlocked iPhones for the Feds 70 Times Before. “A 2015 court case shows that the tech giant has been willing to play ball with the government before—and is only stopping now because it might ‘tarnish the Apple brand.’”
- Tyler Durden, Zerohedge: Is It All Just A Publicity Stunt: Apple Unlocked iPhones For The Feds 70 Times Before. “A quick peek beneath the surface reveals something far less noble and makes Tim Cook seem like you average, if very cunning, smartphone salesman.”
- Bonnie Kristian, The Week: Apple has actually unlocked iPhones for law enforcement 70 times. “…perhaps the tech giant’s stand isn’t quite as principled as it seems.”
- Nicky Cappella, The Stack: Apple cracked iPhones 70 times previously. “…leading to questions of whether their current stance is a matter of principled user privacy, or an opportunity for positive public relations.”
- Jessica Renae Buxbaum, Carbonated.TV: Apple Unlocked 70 iPhones Before So Why The Refusal Now? “Apple — keenly attune to the public sentiment — is thereby manipulating their image to portray themselves as a crusader for privacy rights as opposed to a sly government pawn.”
Harris’ piece in the Daily Beast attributes the 70 iPhones figure to “prosecutors.” Asked for his source, Harris pointed to court records and transcripts from a 2015 case involving a Brooklyn meth dealer with an iPhone running iOS 7. In a contemporaneous report in Motherboard, an assistant U.S. attorney is quoted saying Apple “has never objected” and “has complied” with at least 70 similar requests. That’s not the same as saying Apple did in the past what it now refuses to do.
“It’s important to get this stuff right,” writes Panzarino. “The press has the ability not only to act as a translator but also as an obfuscator. If they get it and they’re able to deliver that information clearly and with proper perspective, the conversation is elevated, the public is informed and sometimes it even alters the course of policy-making for the better.”