There are few acts in the whole world of journalism that are as kabuki-like as interviewing Apple CEO Tim Cook at a conference. If you’re in the audience, you know that Cook will be asked about current products . . . and that he will praise them, and maybe reveal a stat or two, but won’t say anything utterly expected. He will also be pressed to say things about categories that the company is rumored to be entering . . . and will spill no beans other than maybe allowing that a field is interesting. Almost certainly, he will find time to mention the importance of the Chinese market.
So when I attended the WSJ.D Live conference’s opening evening on Monday in Laguna Beach, California, and watched Wall Street Journal editor Gerry Baker interview Cook a few yards from the Pacific Ocean, I could almost mouth some of the CEO’s answers as he gave them.
He said nice things about the iPhone–“The 6s has tremendous innovation and it’s the best smartphone on the market, I will humbly say”–and called out new features such as 3D Touch and live photos. He explained the benefits of Apple Music’s human curation–“The reality is, technology will not be sufficient to tell you what song should be next”–and said the new service now has 6.5 million paying customers and 8.5 million trial users. Asked about Apple retail honcho Angela Ahrendts, he said that she was “on a tear” in China, where the company has 24 stores and plans to have 40 by the middle of next year. His response to a question about whether Apple was going to get into the car business was mostly a pitch for its CarPlay in-car experience, plus a noncommittal “I do think that that industry is at an inflection point for massive change, not just an evolutionary kind of change.”
The conversation was more fun when Cook spoke about the new Apple TV. He pushed back on Baker’s contention that the streaming box wasn’t much of a disruptor, and went on an entertaining rant against TV as it’s existed for decades. (“Why does a channel even exist? Think about it. My nephew asked me once, and I couldn’t even answer.”)
But the liveliest portion of the session by far involved privacy. It’s been a big talking point for Cook for a while now. And onstage, he got worked up talking about it in a way that was strikingly different from his normal, preternaturally calm, on-point manner.
“Privacy is a key value of our company,” Cook began, in a manner similar to his previous statements on the topic. “We think it will become increasingly important to more and more people over time as they realize that intimate parts of their lives are in the open and being used for all kinds of things.” He explained that Apple encrypts personal information and keeps it on your phone, drawing an unstated contrast with Google, whose fundamental business model involves storing personal data in the cloud where the company can slice it, dice it, and monetize it with advertising.
But when the discussion turned to government monitoring of the digital world–National Security Agency director Michael Rogers having preceded Cook onstage–Baker said there were basic tradeoffs between privacy and national security. And Cook didn’t buy it. “I don’t agree,” he said. “I think that’s a copout.”
Cook also objected to Baker’s what-if scenario involving a backdoor that would have let government agents override encrypted data and foil the 9/11 plot before it was carried out: “No one should have to decide [between] privacy or security. We should be smart enough to do both.”
“What we’ve said is that one of the key tenets that we feel very strongly about is that you can’t have a backdoor in the software,” Cook said. “Because you can’t have a backdoor that’s only for the good guys. Any backdoor is something the bad guys can exploit.”
Baker was either a little taken aback, or willing to seem so for the sake of spirited banter–“I’m not arguing for a police state, I’m not arguing for the Stasi”–but Cook never backed down. “We feel a significant obligation to help our customers protect their information, and the only way we know how to do that is to encrypt.”
The discussion eventually moved on to human rights, and while Cook’s musings were intriguing–“Each generation struggles with treating people with basic human respect–it’s so bizarre”–they were also elusive, since he didn’t outline what Apple can or should do to be a force for rights. (Baker had already given a few examples of the company’s activism, such as its support for same-sex marriage.) That only made his jag on the privacy of Apple’s customers and the U.S. government’s desire to snoop on electronic conversations more striking. It’s an area where the company is in a position to be a powerful advocate for consumers, and Cook’s stance was anything but mealy-mouthed.