No one would knowingly hire an accountant who had trouble with math, or an English teacher who couldn’t read. Yet America — one of the world’s highest-tech countries — keeps electing presidents who are conspicuously behind the times with technology, and as Donald Trump’s latest dip into a major tech debate illustrates, the entire world may be in for a reckoning because of it.
Last night, Trump added his weight to an iPhone decryption demand made one day earlier by Attorney General William Barr, telling Apple to “step up to the plate and help” the government by unlocking “phones used by killers, drug dealers, and other violent criminal elements.” Paralleling a 2015-2016 mass shooting investigation in California, Barr had asked Apple to unlock an iPhone 5 and iPhone 7 used by a mass shooter in Florida, and though Apple responded that it had promptly rendered assistance, Trump pushed the company to go further. As is his tendency, Trump openly suggested a quid pro quo, claiming that the government is “helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues,” so Apple should take action “NOW!”
Apple’s response indicated that it already did as much as it has publicly said it’s willing to do when providing assistance to government investigators. Following receipt of a court order, it turned over “many gigabytes” of the gunman’s iCloud server contents — “all of the information that we had” — but apparently refused to specifically unlock the two iPhones, or provide a general backdoor that law enforcement officials could use to unlock any device at will. Law enforcement officials already have access to third-party iPhone hacking tools that are surprisingly effective at unlocking devices, particularly older models, so it’s unclear whether Apple’s help was actually necessary here.
We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020
Civil libertarians and Apple see the issue simply: iPhones have become private repositories for users’ most personal data, akin to personal safes containing health and financial records, and their security can’t be compromised on demand for good guys without opening the safe door to bad guys, as well. Trump, who has spent years preventing investigators from examining everything from his tax records to administration officials for potentially criminal activities, is now pushing Apple to go beyond disclosing its own records, and open the floodgates to whatever investigations officials want to do on customers’ devices as well.
This won’t come as a shock to anyone, but I doubt that Trump fully comprehends what he’s doing here.
To be clear, the problem isn’t that he’s either adverse to technology generally (he’s obviously a long-time, prolific tweeter) or Apple specifically (he recently used the Mac Pro’s Texas assembly line as the backdrop for a campaign ad), but rather that he doesn’t actually understand either the technologies he discusses or the larger implications of his technology-focused demands. In other words, he’s not a no-information decision maker, but rather a low-information decision maker, a fact that often precludes him from making the sort of big picture, well-reasoned choices that will lead to positive long-term outcomes.
One example: Before Trump ran for president, he spent parts of 2013 and 2014 castigating Apple over iPhone screen sizes, ultimately dumping Apple’s stock over the issue and claiming Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs was “spinning in his grave” due to Tim Cook’s leadership. It didn’t take long for Apple to start selling larger-screened phones — which were already designed and headed for manufacturing during Trump’s tantrums — or become the first trillion-dollar U.S. company, with share prices now up 400% from when Trump sold his stock. Moreover, Cook is now one of the only tech CEOs willing to engage with Trump, as others have publicly or quietly distanced themselves from his administration.
Steve Jobs is spinning in his grave – Apple has lost both vision and momentum – must move fast to get magic back!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2014
Trump’s lack of tech understanding stretches far beyond Apple. On the rare occasion Trump has waded into public discussion of a new technology, he’s proved far more likely to make a big, ridiculous proclamation than any substantive contribution. For instance, carriers had just started to deploy 5G cellular technology when Trump told U.S. companies to rush “6G,” which scientists and engineers know is barely explored and will remain undefined for years while 5G gets its sea legs. And the technology brain drain continues downstream. Administration infighting has led key technology officials to quit at record rates, and one of Trump’s best-known cybersecurity advisors was publicly called out for being unable to unlock his own iPhone — which apparently contained sensitive material — without help from an Apple Store.
Despite these examples, Trump isn’t the first president to fall behind the tech curve, and in the past, that wasn’t necessarily a huge deal even when it seemed out of touch to younger voters. The third-youngest president in history, Bill Clinton, wasn’t sending emails as the internet began to take off, and the similarly youthful Barack Obama insisted on keeping his BlackBerry while iPhones and Android phones surged in popularity. Inbetween them, George W. Bush wasn’t much of a computer user, and reportedly abstained from using email even for personal messages — no easy feat during an eight-year stint in office.
The difference today is that a leader unfamiliar with modern technology — particularly the intersections between technology and critical laws such as civil liberties — is woefully underprepared to make technology-related decisions that will impact people around the world. It’s true that unlike accountants or English teachers, presidents take office without specific educational credentials or licenses, and there’s no prerequisite beyond natural born citizenship and an age of 35 or older. But between their prior jobs as lawyers, military officers, business leaders, and/or politicians, new presidents typically bring at least some of the expertise they’ll need to be the chief executive, commander-in-chief, and a leading policy maker. For everything else, they typically hire the best consultants available.
If a president doesn’t have topic expertise and doesn’t seem interested in learning, at least internal debates between well-informed advisors have a chance of producing good long-term results. But when the advisors aren’t particularly well-informed either, you wind up with blustery demands like “Apple, help NOW,” even when rendering technological help this week means compromising the privacy of hundreds of millions of people around the globe, and potentially enabling criminals to create far greater security risks than already exist today.
As we head deeper into the 2020 election season, my hope is that we’ll see candidates at all levels of government thoughtfully address digital topics such as privacy and encryption — and that voters will begin to see technologically uninformed candidates as ill-suited to govern in the modern era. There isn’t necessarily a single “correct” answer in the current encryption debate, but it’s likely that any future solution will be the product of more and better thinking by engineers and policymakers, rather than threats and demands from law enforcement officials.