Apple CEO signals he’s not backing down on iPhone encryption

On Friday, the White House convened a “cyber summit” at Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto so that business and government leaders could get together and talk, essentially, about how scary hackers are.

There were two keynote speakers: Apple CEO Tim Cook, who got 10 minutes of talking time, and President Obama, who got 30 minutes. Obama focused on the threats to our digital security — “This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Everybody is online and everybody is vulnerable” — and legislation he’s proposed, including a revision to the existing law against computer intrusion and a national data breach notification law. He ended the talk by signing an executive order to promote companies sharing information about digital attackers. Cook, meanwhile, spent most of his time promoting Apple Pay and talking about threats to privacy in the name of security.

Cook obliquely addressed an ongoing tension between Apple and the U.S. government: Apple’s decision to add encryption to its iPhones so that the data on them can only be unlocked by their owners, and not with a government order. The enhanced security measure has come under criticism by the U.K. prime minister and by the director of the FBI, who said Apple and Google (which plans to offer the same feature for Androids) are putting their customers “beyond the law.”

“We believe deeply that everyone has a right to privacy and security,” said Cook. “So much of our information now is digital: photos, medical information, financial transactions, our most private conversations. It comes with great benefits; it makes our lives better, easier and healthier. But at Apple, we have always known this also comes with a great responsibility. Hackers are doing everything they can to steal your data, so we’re using every tool at our disposal to build the most secure devices that we can.”

Cook used the opportunity at the podium to take a dig at his tech competitors—pointing out that Apple, unlike other companies, doesn’t sell or monetize its customers’ data. His fellow CEOs were not there to hear the burn, though. Despite being invited, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Google CEO Larry Page, were not in attendance at the hastily-arranged summit, though their security executives did show up.

Cook signaled that Apple has no intention to back down on allowing its customers to encrypt their devices, despite the criticism the policy has gotten from government types and calls for “golden keys” to grant law enforcement access to otherwise secure messages.

“People have trusted us with their most personal and private information and we must give them the best technology we can to secure it,” said Cook. “Sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences. We live in a world where people are not treated equally. There are people who don’t feel free to practice their religion, express their opinion or love who they choose. Technology can mean the difference between life and death.”

“Sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences.”

In other words: people have secrets that they want to keep from hackers, but also, in some places with repressive governments, from authorities themselves.

“If we don’t do everything we can to protect privacy, we risk more than money,” said Cook. “We risk our way of life.”

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