The FBI Apple dispute links technology to business and so much more

201603-pexels-iphoneThe dispute between FBI and Apple, over unlocking the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooters, is all over the news. (Here, here, here, and basically everywhere else.) The central issue is whether the government can compel a private company to spy on its customers or not.

Apple decided, well before the San Bernardino shooting, that it would not build a way for itself to unlock data that customers wanted to hide. The government is trying to force them to walk back that decision. The dispute shows how technology connects to business, politics, civil liberties, and so much more.

It’s a great example of why it’s so important for you, as a scientist or engineer, to know how your business works. On one hand, you have the technology itself. It’s awesome to work on sophisticated encryption, and other security technologies, that can help protect consumer privacy. On the other hand, you have to know how this plays into the company’s marketing strategy, and what implications it holds politically.

Think about your industry. What promises do you make to customers that rely, in one way or another, on your company’s technical capabilities? In the eyes of your customer, how does your technology differentiate you from your competitors?

Apple knows how important data security is to customers. It’s been a central issue in our lives since at least September 11, 2001. The events that day inspired the Patriot Act, which opened a Pandora’s box regarding public surveillance. Over time, Apple has settled on privacy as a foundational commitment to its customers. The FBI dispute threatens that commitment.

Any business has tons of stakeholders, commonly grouped in this way:

  • Owners
  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Community

The community bit is where you find government, and that’s where Apple is in hot water. Community matters a lot for some industries: oil and gas, utilities, food and beverage, aerospace, telecommunications, etc.

Businesses are built around customers, for the obvious reasons. On the publicly-traded side, businesses spend enormous amounts of time thinking about their owners, i.e. investors, and their employees. Community can fall by the wayside.

To make the kind of impact you know you can make, you need a seat at the table. You need to know how your business is structured, and how it intends to meet the needs of all its stakeholders. The FBI Apple dispute is a great example of the importance of the technical folks being able to speak to the deliberate tradeoffs, affecting all stakeholders groups, that are made in the pursuit of innovation.


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