It seems like no one is talking about the elephant in the room with regard to Tim Cook & Privacy: his sexual orientation. In 2014, Tim Cook came out as gay. Growing up in rural Alabama during the height of KKK activity, he must have felt very marginalized as his sexual orientation was demonized by those around him. Anti-sodomy laws in Alabama were on the books until 2003, when SCOTUS decided Lawrence v. Texas and declared anti-sodomy laws to be illegal everywhere. For most of his life, it was illegal for him to be himself. Tim Cook is uniquely qualified to fight for privacy rights due to his personal experience as a marginalized & victimized minority.
His work with IBM, Compaq, and Apple brought him to California. He had risen through the ranks and was COO of Apple. At the time, the company was faltering. Cook turned it around. He must have felt great about his ability to work with a diverse team to turn the company around and help bring to market some of the most popular consumer electronics products ever: the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.
In 2014, he wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg Businessweek where he confirmed that he was gay for the first time, publicly. The most telling quote for me is, “I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I have benefited from the sacrifice of others.” He didn’t lead the charge for broader acceptance of LGBTQ people, but he noticed that he benefited from it. Now it’s his turn to lead the charge.
Tim Cook must know in the back of his mind that his sexual orientation could put him in jail. Perhaps he stayed away from activism because of this. Activists are routinely investigated by law enforcement, whose request for his personal, private data could mean a conviction under the sodomy laws of Alabama and North Carolina, where he lived and was educated. He knows how much privacy means. Privacy is what kept him out of jail.
In the context of terrorism, we’re not too far away from McCarthyism. Anyone who looks and sounds like a terrorist (read: any non-white person of non-Christian faith) is immediately implicated and questioned for hours. I had a Pakistani roommate my first year at university. He was coming from the UAE but was born in Karachi to Pakistani parents. The term started in mid-August, but he wasn’t allowed into the country until mid-September. Are you surprised to learn that the country in question was our more liberal northern neighbor, Canada? Even there, my brown-skinned, black-bearded roommate had extreme difficulty gaining entry as a student.
Don’t get me wrong, the threat of terrorism is very real and very important to address. But the privacy battle Tim Cook is waging is not about terrorism; this battle is about all marginalized people whose acceptance in society ebbs and flows, or whose acceptance isn’t yet secured. The word “jihad” is a term used throughout the Qur’an and Hadith to describe a spiritual struggle. Any muslim in the US will likely use this word to discuss their spiritual struggle– should they be considered terrorists? The naïve computer systems at the NSA, FBI, and CIA would likely give a resounding “yes”. This term is invoked strongly by radical factions. Should radical factions of Christianity be marginalized in the same way for their use of slurs towards folks of darker-pigmented skin? These terms are used by historians and pop culture artists alike, and cannot be outlawed. We cannot be in the business of outlawing speech–removing privacy would do that.
Removing privacy would be a form of outlawing speech because of the effect of self-censorship. When you know your grandparents are listening, do you swear? In my family, swearing is unacceptable in the presence of my grandparents. Therefore, I censor myself; when I would otherwise use a curse word, I choose something more benign like a frustrated “ah!” or omit any expletive at all. In our household, curse words have been outlawed. My parents have never told me directly not to swear, but I learned by observing the reactions of those present when someone does swear. In our terrorism case, when someone says “jihad,” they’re questioned thoroughly and immediately implicated in terrorist activities unless proven innocent. Our ideal conception of the result is not the reality–law enforcement is not in the business of giving rights, rather they are in the business of taking them away.
Tim Cook thinks our privacy right is of the utmost importance, and he knows that the FBI is not just interested in unlocking this one phone. Privacy is what gives society the breathing room to discover new things about itself, allow new movements to form, and so on. Without privacy, we might not have the Black Lives Matter movement. Without privacy, we might not have had the Civil Rights Movement. Without privacy, we would have mass incarceration of gay people. Freedom to pursue alternative paths in life is what makes Western society great.
If the FBI gets its way, we’re all suspects in its war against terrorism, whether you like it or not. If Apple gets its way, we can continue to have a vibrant society with diversity of opinion and of ways of life. Tim Cook’s personal experience as a marginalized gay man and leader of one of the most valuable companies in the world makes him uniquely suited to make this case for privacy. I can only hope, for all those who are marginalized, that Tim Cook and Apple win this fight.