Apple is a lot like a teenager getting Edward Snowden's name tattooed up her arm. The excitement will die, but the regrets will last. For all of us.
Most Americans believe in privacy from government searches, but not for criminals. The Constitution protects a citizen's “houses, papers and effects” only until a judge finds probable cause that the citizen has committed a crime. This year, the Supreme Court ruled that the police need a warrant to search cellphones seized at the time of arrest. But with Apple's new encryption, probable cause and a warrant will be of little help to the police who seize a suspect’s iPhone and want to search it.
That decision should not be left to Apple alone. And it won't be.
Companies do not want to give their employees the power to roam corporate networks in secrecy. And even if they did, their regulators wouldn't let them. If Apple wants to sell iPhones for business use, it will have to give companies a way to read their employees’ business communications. Corporate IT departments won’t welcome a technology that could help workers hide misdeeds from their employer.
And as a global company, Apple is subject to regulation and market pressure everywhere. If China doesn't like Apple's new policy, it can ban the iPhone or simply encourage China's mobile carriers to slow Apple's already weak sales there. Even democracies like India, and U.S. allies like the United Arab Emirates, have shown the determination and the clout to force changes in phone makers' security choices.
So if Apple wants to sell its iPhone everywhere, it will have to compromise. But then what? Will it really give China's authoritarian regime more access to iPhone data than it gives to American police trying to stop crimes in this country?
And if so, how will its management sleep at night?