Did Apple’s “Customer Letter” ...


In one corner we have the biggest, baddest and most valuable company on the planet, Apple.

In the opposite corner sits the U.S. government getting more ornery by the minute.

As you know by now, the government has asked Apple to unlock a phone used by a terrorist in San Bernardino. Apple has refused, believing that to comply would put it on the wrong side of the privacy debate.

Each party is courting public opinion, with Apple’s posturing last week taking the form of a customer letter.

Does the writing reflect Apple’s brand?

Does the tone hit the right mark?

In short, is the letter persuasive?

Here’s my breakdown:


A Message to Our Customers

Seems like a missed opportunity to take such a conservative approach with the headline.

The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.

This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.

Apple immediately defines the issue as one “which threatens the security of our customers.” Clear language leaves nothing for interpretation. And it takes the high ground calling for public discussion.

The Need for Encryption

Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going.

All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.

Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.

For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe. We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.

What’s revealing in Apple’s lesson on encryption is what’s missing: No jargon. No gobbledygook. Again, conversational language walks the reader through the rationale for Apple’s stance on encryption. Also note the finesse in recasting the issue as bigger than Apple, “Customers expect Apple and other technology companies …”

The San Bernardino Case

We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists.

It sounds honest … until that last sentence: “We have no sympathy for terrorists.” Perhaps the lawyers jumped in on the choice of verb, which wrecked intent. Regardless, eliminating the line would strengthen the letter.

When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.

The brief must have included the primary message, “We are law abiding citizens.”

We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

FBI 02-16

There’s a lot going on in this passage starting with the show of empathy for the FBI. Yet, even with the FBI’s best intentions, it is still asking Apple to create something that sounds sinister, “a backdoor” to the phone.

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

Talk about conjuring a spiritual elephant in the room. After the Edward Snowden debacle, how can the government guarantee the “backdoor” won’t fall into the wrong hands?

The Threat to Data Security

Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.

In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

Playing the Snowden card again …

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

Continuing to avoid technical language, Apple hammers home the point with a metaphor that your Aunt Beatrice in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can understand.

The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.

To this point, I could characterize the choice of words as measured which accentuates the phrase, “the government is asking Apple to hack our own users …”

We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.

In other words, we can’t sell two versions of the phone, one for the average Joe and a different one for the bad guys.

A Dangerous Precedent

Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority.

Now this is clever. In reading that the FBI is using legislation from 1789 you do wonder, “What the hell?”

The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

A second charged word surfaces, “the government’s demands are chilling.” With dot-connecting logic, it then paints a picture of the government dipping into your personal phone information.

Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.

We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.

The last thing Apple wants is to be tarred as un-American. We also see finesse in leaving some wiggle room with a call for discussion rather than a petulant no.

While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.

Tim Cook

For the second time, we see the phrase “we believe the FBI’s intentions are good …” In other words, don’t be too hard on the FBI. It’s trying, but doesn’t have the benefit of understanding the big picture. Apple puts a tidy bow on the letter channeling the Declaration of Independence with the threat to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


The core principles of effective business writing can be found in the Apple letter.

Conversational language.

Logical flow, which comes out in the subheads:

  • The Need for Encryption
  • The San Bernardino Case
  • The Threat to Data Security
  • A Dangerous Precedent

Apple showed restraint in word choice when it would have been easy to fall into the hyperbole trap.

Bottom line —

The letter isn’t going to change the minds of the FBI and the federal government.

But for the rest of us, the letter is damn persuasive.

Side note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “Rethinking Ogilvy’s 10 Tips For Writing For Today’s World.”


  • Judy Gombita

    I don’t disagree in terms of the effectiveness (persuasiveness) of Apple’s “letter” to its customers, BUT…on the news it was reported that in a recent poll of Americans, 51 per cent thought Apple should open that one phone for the FBI.

    Public Sides With FBI in its Legal Flight Against Apple http://ow.ly/YIA7Y (Pew Internet Research’s poll results detailed in Fortune magazine)

    • Lou Hoffman

      Thanks Judy. I did see that poll. Personally, I find myself falling into the 51 percent camp. Yet, I still think Apple demonstrated smarts and savvy in how it constructed the letter.


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