Apple’s Brand and Surveillance Anxiety

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For the past two weeks, the United States Justice Department and Apple have been locked in a very public and increasingly bitter battle.

It’s over whether the computer giant should help the FBI’s investigation into last December’s San Bernardino terrorist attack by writing software to defeat encryption technology in an iPhone used by one of the shooters.

The case came to a head with both sides testifying before Congress today.

“It will be one of those cases that people study forever,” said branding expert Sasha Strauss. “It’s one of those cases that sets precedent. It defines the way we think about a topic. And the topic is that this isn’t a piece of hardware. This is a documentation of our life. And we have a scenario where someone wants a key to that documentation of our life and the government wants to decide who.”

Strauss is managing director at branding firm Innovation Protocol and professor at USC and for him this is a definitive teachable moment.

“Everything you do, everything you say, that defines how people feel about you. And whether that’s in the courtroom or on the retail storefront, it still is an impactful moment that creates a mark in the mind of the customer. And Apple will never let that rest,” Strauss said.

The iPhone 5s (photo by Jae Lee via Flickr/CC)

The Apple case got us thinking about the ways surveillance has been built into society for a very long time — both by government and us watching each other.

“We’ve been living with surveillance in our culture for centuries,” said Peter Zellner, an architect and professor at SCI-Arc, “and control mechanisms are built into our cities. They’re everywhere, and increasingly they’re more virtualized.”

Zellner traces surveillance back to the malevolent nosy neighbors that participated in the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, and the conquerors of Greek and Roman times, who planned cities in a way to ensure control of the population.

If this conflict between Apple and the FBI over cyber surveillance seems like science fiction, that because writers and filmmakers have already been imagining such a scenario for decades.

Take for example “V For Vendetta,” the movie based on the 1980s sci-fi graphic novel which depicted London’s citizens being monitored by video cameras and hidden microphones.

“I think whenever you’re talking about government control, the one piece of fiction that comes to everybody’s mind is 1984,” said Eric J. Lawrence, KCRW’s librarian, archivist and resident expert on all things pop culture. “It has become shorthand for any sort of totalitarianism, oppression by a government force.”

Lawrence recalls an innovative TV commercial aired by Apple during the 1984 Superbowl, directed by Ridley Scott.

The ad, Lawrence said, “was trying to demonstrate how Apple was trying to break out of this conformist mold” that was thought to characterize it’s opposition at the time, IBM and PC computing.

“I find it fascinating that we’re affording a commercial entity such as Apple, that has no responsibility other than to its own shareholders, and we’re putting our faith in them to protect our privacy and protect our information from the government.”