Apple’s Blunder and Why the Tech Industry Needs to look at itself in the Mirror

Privacy concept: Data Privacy on Digital Paper background

Imagine if the government required you to have a combination lock on your door and to give it the key. It would create security and privacy risks for you and your family. This is what could happen if we required the technology industry to add back doors to its software and devices.  Hackers, criminals, and foreign governments could crack the code and abuse it. This is what the technology industry is rightfully rallying against.

But in trying to prevent government intrusion, Apple picked the wrong fight. It has set off a chain of events that will create a public relations backlash and cause Congress to pass new legislation which won’t be well thought out. This will be a setback for privacy. As well, Apple has brought to light the deficiencies of the technology industry itself—which lives in a glass house and needs to clean up its act.

Apple’s decision to fight a court order to help federal authorities unlock the iPhone used by one of the terrorists who killed 14 people and injured 22 in San Bernardino has certainly gained it support within Silicon Valley.  But it has become a target of populist campaigns by Donald Trump and others. This battle isn’t going to be portrayed as being about encryption and back doors; it is going to center on protection of data of murderous terrorists. Other than Silicon Valley purists, few will side with Apple on this.

The public desperately want protection from terrorists, foreign governments, and hackers. After 9/11, Americans accepted certain limits on civil liberties—which protect their privacy yet provide the government with enough information to be effective at its job. People clearly don’t care so much about encryption and privacy because they use the deeply flawed technologies being offered by the tech industry.

Big Brother would be envious of the surveillance capabilities of Google and Apple. They read our emails before we do and keep track of our searches; their mobile devices log our movements and activities; the apps that we download commonly trick us into giving them our contact lists and other personal data; our smartphones have the ability to turn our cameras and microphones on without us being aware that this has happened.

Tech companies want to learn all they can about us so that they can market more products and services to us—and sell our data to others. They believe that they own our data and can use it in any way they like. These companies are not required to tell consumers what information they are gathering or how they will protect it. They keep us in the dark while profiting from us. When our data is hacked, they simply plead ignorance. In other industries, product manufacturers would be held liable for the safety and security of their products. Yet tech seems to get a free ride; its hacked customers take the blame.

We should have ownership of our own data and receive royalties from any use that we permit. And we should take the developers of the flawed operating systems and apps to task for their lax security.

Sadly, things are only going to get worse. The next big technology, the Internet of Things, will embed sensors in our appliances, electronic devices, and our clothing. These will be connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or mobile-phone technology. They will gather extensive data about us and upload it to central storage facilities managed by technology companies. Google’s Nest home thermostat already monitors our daily movements to optimize the temperature in our homes. In the process, Google learns all about our lifestyles and habits. Our smart TV’s will watch us to see if we want to change channels—and learn which shows we like and how attentively we watch them. Our refrigerator will keep track of what we eat so it can order more food—and know our dietary weaknesses.

This is bad enough, but the bigger problem is that these devices aren’t secure. Children’s toys and cars have already been hacked. Our TV sets and medical devices will also be. Because they don’t face enough of a liability, device manufacturers don’t feel obliged to invest the time, money and effort necessary to secure their devices.  It is cheaper for them to apologize and do product recalls than to build ultra-secure products.

So it is great to see Apple and Google standing up for consumer rights. But they need to provide us with the same protections they are demanding from the government.


Author: Vivek Wadhwa

Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University


San Francisco Bay Area, USA