On Jim Comey’s Attempts to Force Apple to Change Its Business Model

As he has said repeatedly in Congressional testimony, FBI Director Jim Comey wants to change Apple’s business model.

The former General Counsel for defense contractor Lockheed and hedge fund Bridgewater Associates has never, that I’ve seen, explained what he thought Apple’s business model should be, or how much he wants to change it, or how the FBI Director put himself in charge of dictating what business models were good for America and what weren’t and why we’re even asking that in an age of multinational corporate structures.

It seems there are three possible business models Comey might have in mind for Apple:

  • The AT&T (or Lockheed) model, in which a provider treats federal business as a significant (in Lockheed’s case, the only meaningful) market, and therefore treats federal requests, even national security ones, as a primary market driver; in this case, the Feds are your customer
  • The Google model, in which a provider sees the user’s data as the product, rather than the user herself, and therefore builds all systems so as to capture and use the maximal amount of data
  • A different model, in which Apple can continue to sell what I call a walled garden to customers, still treating customers as the primary market, but with limits on how much of a walled garden it can offer

I raise these models, in part, because I got into a conversation on Twitter about what the value of encryption on handsets really is. The conversation suffered, I think, from presuming that iPhones and Android phones have the same business model, and therefore one could calculate the value of the encryption offered on an iPhone the same way one would calculate the value of encryption on an Android phone. They’re not.

Even aside from the current difference between Google’s business model (the data model at the software level, the licensing model at the handset level) versus Apple’s model, in Apple’s model, the customer is the customer, and she pays a premium for an idyllic walled garden that includes many features she may not use.

I learned this visiting recently with a blind friend of mine, whom I used to read for on research in college, who therefore introduced me to adaptive technologies circa 1990 (which were pretty cutting edge at the time). I asked her what adaptive technologies she currently uses, thinking that as happened with the 90s stuff the same technology might then be rolled out for a wider audience in a slightly different application. She said, the iPhone, the iPhone, and the iPhone. Not only are there a slew of apps available for iPhone that provide adaptive technologies. Not only does the iPhone offer the ability to access recorded versions of the news and the like. But all this comes standard in every iPhone (along with other adaptive technologies that wouldn’t be used by a blind person any more than most sighted ones). All iPhone users pay for those adaptive technologies as part of their walled garden, even though even fewer realize they’re there than they realize their phone has great encryption. But because they pay more for their phone, they’re effectively ensuring those who need adaptive technologies can have them, and on the market leader in handsets. Adaptive technologies, like online security, are part of the idyllic culture offered within Apple’s walled garden.

The notion that you can assign a value to Apple’s encryption, independent of the larger walled garden model, seems mistaken. Encryption is a part of having a walled garden, especially when the whole point of a walled garden is creating a space where it is safe and easy to live online.

Plus, it seems law enforcement in this country is absolutely obtuse that the walled garden does provide law enforcement access in the Cloud, and they ought to be thrilled that the best encryption product in the world entails making metadata — and for users using default settings, as even Syed Rizwan Farook seems to have been — content readily available to both PRISM and (Admiral Rogers made clear) USA Freedom Act. That is, Apple’s walled garden does not preclude law enforcement from patrolling parts of the garden. On the contrary, it happens to ensure that American officials have the easiest ability to do so, within limits that otherwise ensure the security of the walled garden in ways our national security elite have been both unwilling and even less able to do.

But there’s one more big problem with the fanciful notion you can build a business model that doesn’t allow for encryption: Signal is free. The best app for encrypted calls and texts, Signal, is available free of charge, and via open source software (so it could be made available overseas if Jim Comey decided it, too, needed to adopt a different business model). The attempt to measure in value what value encryption adds to a handset is limited, because someone can always add on top of it their own product, so any marginal value of encryption on a handset would have to make default encrypted device storage of additional marginal value over what is available for free (note, there is a clear distinction between encrypting data at rest and in motion, but the latter would be more important for anyone conducting nefarious actions with a phone).

Finally, there’s one other huge problem with Comey’s presumption that he should be able to dictate business models.

Even according to this year’s threat assessment, the threat from hacking is still a greater threat to the country than terrorism. Apple’s business model, both by collecting less unnecessary data on users and by aspiring to creating a safe walled garden, offers a far safer model to disincent attacks (indeed, by defaulting on encryption, Apple also made iPhone theft and identity via device theft far harder). Comey is, effectively, trying to squelch one of the market efforts doing the most to make end users more resilient to hackers.

The only model left–that could offer a safer default environment–would effectively be an AT&T model pushed to its limits: government ownership of telecoms, what much of the world had before Reagan pushed privatization (and in doing so, presumably made the rest of the world a lot easier for America to spy on). Not only would that devastate one of the brightest spots in America’s economy, but it would represents a pretty alarming move toward explicit total control (from what it tacit control now).

Is that what former Hedgie Jim Comey is really looking to do?

One final point. While I think it is hard to measure marginal value of encryption, the recent kerfuffle over Kindle makes clear that the market does assign value to it. Amazon dropped support for encryption on some of its devices last fall, which became clear as people were no longer able to upgrade. When they complained in response, it became clear they were using Kindles beyond what use Amazon envisioned for them. But by taking away encryption users had already had, Amazon not only made existing devices less usable, but raised real questions about the CIA contractor’s intent. Pretty quickly after the move got widespread attention, Amazon reversed course.

Even with a company as untrustworthy and data hungry as Amazon, removing encryption will elicit immediate distrust. Which apparently is not sustainable from a business perspective.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

4 replies
  1. bevin says:

    Remember Colonel Cathcart? And Major— De Coverley?
    Comey is a serial incompetent whose incompetence is his ticket to ride in the highest circles. Obama, and he is far from being unique in this, is surrounded by some of the most incompetent and idiotic people in the nation. And when that doesn’t prove to be enough out they bring in Sam Powers from Dublin, to show how incompetent people can get.

    It is what happens when empires begin to crumble-check out modern British history for proof- the most indoctrinated people, the inmates, in other words, monopolise management of the asylum.

    And Major—–? He is the antidote: no more loyalty oaths “Give everybody eat.”
    It is all in Catch 22. Or The Good Soldier Schweik. Or Tristram Shandy.

  2. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I think a more nuanced distinction between the Apple and Google business models would substitute “centralize” for “collect”.

    Apple grabs a lot of data about you, but doesn’t centralize it into a user profile. Your biometrics (fingerprint, voiceprint for “Hello Siri”) don’t ever leave the phone. Other data only leave in the form of iCloud backups, should you use that service.

    Advertising aside, this presents a problem for Apple in the race to use machine learning to optimize our lives. All these machine learning concepts have been around since the 1980s, it’s just that there’s now enough online data in the world to “teach” these systems interesting things. Apple’s decision to not centralize our data actually places them at an apparent competitive disadvantage.

    (And it is really remarkable how Apple has quietly disrupted the market for adaptive technology, offering commodity solutions at a lower price than the specialized hardware. The first time I heard a blind person talk about this was a revelation.)

  3. Rayne says:

    FBI director issuing diktats about technology business models is completely unacceptable. Comey, run for Congress, win a seat, write a bill, find some co-sponsors, submit it, debate the case for limiting certain technology on behalf of constituents. That’s how it’s done in a representative democracy, which we still have for the time being.

    “A republic, if you can keep it” — Apple’s pushback is the keeping of it, a rejection of autocracy, especially important when the executive has screwed up its efforts so badly on this particular iPhone. Fuckups on the part of law enforcement should not require a deprecation of rights as a remedy.

    Which leads me to this question: Why is it no one is asking for heads to roll over this ridiculous mess? Who’s responsible for the jacked-up handling of this one iPhone, now costing the public an exorbitant amount of money and effort for what will be little-to-nothing in results? A certain chien de garde should be asked this question on camera.

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