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Encrypted Messaging App Co-Founder: Tim Cook Is A 'National Security Hero'


Here is some of what Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said about his company's products when I spoke to him last fall.


TIM COOK: Privacy is designed into the product, and security is designed in. Some of our most personal data is on the phone - our financial data, our health information, our conversations with our friends and family and coworkers. And so instead of us taking that data into Apple, we've kept data on the phone, and it's encrypted by you. You control it.

SIEGEL: But does that mean that if a clever terrorist encrypts his texts, it really doesn't matter whether the government has access to that or not?

COOK: National security always matters, obviously, but the reality is that if you have an open door in your software for the good guys, the bad guys get in there, too. We think that our customers want us to help them keep their data safe.

SIEGEL: That was last October. Now the CEO of Apple has locked horns with the government. The company is vowing to fight a court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone that was used by a terrorist, Syed Farook, in San Bernardino, Calif., last year. When Tim Cook says privacy is designed into the product, he's expressing an idea promoted by privacy advocates, Privacy by Design. And here to talk about what that means in this case is Nico Sell, who's co-chairman and co-founder of Wickr, which is an app designed for privacy. It allows people to send encrypted messages that self-destruct after time. Welcome to the program.

NICO SELL: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: If you were CEO of Apple, would you comply with a court order or oppose it as long as you could?

SELL: I hope I could be as brave as Tim Cook and do the exact same thing. I think he's a national security hero right now, and more of us need to follow him.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, Wickr's stated privacy policy is to comply with subpoenas, lawful court orders.

SELL: Definitely. I'm sure that Apple's is the exact same. I mean, all of us want to comply. The problem here is there is an unprecedented ask by creating this backdoor. And this is a backdoor. It will be used for the bad guys. And by Tim Cook agreeing to not build this, he's helping protect all of us.

SIEGEL: The request to open up the San Bernardino iPhone is about the strongest case the government could make. The user of the phone is dead. He was a mass murderer. He's been linked to a group that espouses mass murderers and is said to be plotting some more. The owner of the phone was actually Farook's employer, and it says the FBI can have at it. You don't think that iPhone users, other customers would cut Apple a little slack on this one?

SELL: I think they would cut it slack, but anyone in the technology industry understands that there is absolutely no way to build this for just one phone. What the FBI is asking Apple to do is to create an amazingly strong weapon that would actually - could be used to devastate the United States and the world. Beyond national security, it's also the legal precedent they sent, what we do to innovation to drive it away from the country and all the economy.

SIEGEL: You think it could devastate the country and the world?

SELL: Yes, I do. You know, the most important lessons I've learned in my life are from hackers. And as soon as you understand how to break in and abuse one of these pieces of code, you clearly understand why this is something that we would never want to do because it endangers our security greatly.

SIEGEL: I understand the fear of the government possessing a key to unlock every iPhone. But if Apple, say, developed such a key, kept control of it, received the iPhone in question, applied this key and then sent the unlocked phone to the FBI, would such a hypothetical file pose a danger just because it existed within the corporate confines of Apple and a few people knew about it?

SELL: It would. The U.S. government and Apple are two of the very best companies in the world at security, and they've both had major breaches. And we always think about with Wickr, too - it's really, you know - we say, can we survive the black van scenario? If someone did take one of us, would we be able to change it? And the answer is no.

SIEGEL: You have said that someone claiming to be from the FBI has approached you in the past about designing a way to allow the government to retrieve information from users of Wickr, your app.

SELL: Correct.

SIEGEL: You say you declined to do that. Can you imagine circumstances - I mean, the threat of detonating a nuclear weapon, something like that - where you would say, OK, that's my line; I would, at that point, do whatever I could?

SELL: No. So I think - like I said, I think this is one of the most devastating weapons that we could ever see if you have this. I mean, if you look at Wickr, we take our job really seriously because people fighting terrorists use and depend on Wickr every day as well as activists fighting totalitarian regimes. So let's say this does take precedent and Apple does this. Then we could have the FBI and numerous other agencies in 200 other countries coming to us forcing us to change our software, which is really concerning.

SIEGEL: Nico Sell, thanks for sharing your views with us.

SELL: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Nico Sell, co-founder and co-chair of Wickr, an encrypted messaging app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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