In FBI encryption fight, Apple seeks Latino support

In FBI encryption fight, Apple seeks Latino support
Apple executive Eddy Cue told Univision this week that he fears authorities, if allowed by the courts or lawmakers, may demand more surveillance capabilities from tech companies. (Monica Davey / European Pressphoto Agency)

When Apple sought to promote its music streaming service, it talked to the tech press. When it wanted to drum up interest in its new watch, it went to fashion magazines.

But as the iPhone maker defends its security technology and defies a court order in a terrorism case, it turned this week to a news outlet that surprised many: Univision.

Apple Inc.'s top-ranking Latino executive warned viewers of the Spanish language TV network on Wednesday that the FBI's demand for weaker security on iPhones could give investigators new surveillance powers, including in immigration cases.

The interview and other recent steps by the world's most valuable company suggest Apple is attempting to frame the contentious battle over encryption with key demographic groups, including older Americans and lawmakers, political experts said.

Apple is laying the foundation for what could be a years-long clash in the courts and legislative halls over whether its security tools can act as a permanent blockade to investigations. Polls show the issue divides the country. And many people are unsure of where they stand after a month of dueling statements from the FBI and Apple.

But broad public support may not be essential for the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant, assuming it can win over specific groups of voters whose support can sway elections, political strategists said. For example, the prospect of fervent Latino support for Apple's position could be enough to force Democratic politicians who rely on the Latino vote to rethink backing the FBI.

That might explain why Eddy Cue, Apple senior vice president of Internet software and services, told Univision that Latinos should be very concerned about any law that gives the government broad access to personal information.

"Because where does this stop?" Cue said in Spanish. "In a divorce case? In an immigration case? In a tax case with the IRS? Someday, someone will be able to turn on a phone's microphone. This should not happen in this country."

Univision's Spanish-speaking audience wasn't targeted for any particular reason, according to a person familiar with Apple's thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But experts had little doubt that Cue's mention of immigration represented a deliberate attempt to extend some Latinos' fears about the government to the FBI's position on encryption. His comment came in response to a question about whether Latinos should be "especially concerned," given that many are immigrants.

Bringing up immigration was a "marvelous stroke," said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who is an expert in Latino politics. "Once there's a sentiment that the federal government could crack into phones to see who's in the country legally or illegally, that's a line in the sand."

Apple executives have said they want Congress to decide whether tech companies may develop products and services that authorities can't unlock without a user's consent. The company prefers stronger security, but law enforcement agencies fear being shut out as technology now holds clues in nearly every case.

The FBI has tried to limit the issue to one case: the San Bernardino terrorism investigation. Apple has refused to obey a court order asking its engineers to develop software that would remove security barriers the FBI says prevent it from unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the attackers.

Cue told Univision the problem is that the demands from the FBI will only escalate.

"When they can get us to create a new system to do new things, where will it stop?" Cue said in Spanish, warning someday authorities may ask Apple to tap someone's iPhone camera.

Apple's argument, first laid out a month ago in an open letter signed by Chief Executive Tim Cook, hasn't changed.

But the company appears to be moving its public relations campaign to new forums to further its message.

Cook, in his first network TV appearance since a wide-ranging discussion on "60 Minutes" in December, gave an exclusive interview to ABC, whose broad, older viewership is more likely to vote than Apple's enthusiastic young fans, experts said.

Then last weekend, Apple Senior Vice President Craig Federighi wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, a widely read outlet among lawmakers. He called hampering the growth of security measures "a serious mistake" because it would make everyone's devices vulnerable.

"They are not taking any prisoners in this," said Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State. "Apple feels this is a threat to their business, whether a threat to their customers, their values or both. They don't want to wait for the threat to come to them, they want to bat it down before it gets to them."

Experts described this week's Univision interview as part of a conscious Apple strategy because, as Republican political consultant Reed Galen said, "Nobody chooses Univision by accident."

Alex Ontiveros, a social media consultant and publisher of a Latino news website in Silicon Valley, said he couldn't remember the last time Univision received special access from Apple.

But such support could be pivotal in this instance in part because Latinos are more likely to rely on mobile phones to access the Internet than other Americans. They own more devices and spend more time using them than the average consumer, according to Nielsen.

If Apple can't get smartphone users to support its stance, it could face a greater challenge convincing lawmakers and judges that the company's interests mirror those of its customers.

Apple also risks provoking outrage from Republicans, including GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who side with the FBI and desire more stringent enforcement of immigration laws.

But targeting additional communities is worth the risk, experts contend. They suggest Apple could generate more conversation around encryption among young voters, who spend hours a day with their digital devices but have mixed views on privacy.

African Americans and conservatives skeptical about federal overreach could be rich sources of support as well. Already, several black rights groups have filed briefs in support of Apple in the San Bernardino case, which will bring the company and the FBI to court March 22. A recent Pew survey didn't have a large enough sample size to offer a breakdown for the Latino community, but the survey did find non-Hispanic blacks were slightly more likely to back Apple over the FBI than non-Hispanic white people.

Vital also is maintaining the backing of tech peers, including archrival Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google.

"Between conservative-minded libertarians, minority communities and the tech community, I think you can build one heck of a coalition," Galen said. The tech community especially, he said, "when they decide they want to engage, they can create a big amount of noise in a hurry," citing battles in recent years over Internet regulations, corporate taxes and online piracy.

"It would seem they would target anyone who could be adversely affected by the federal government's success," Gerston said of Apple.

It all adds up to swaying voters and sending a clear message to lawmakers and those seeking office.

Apple wants them to know that it's going to ensure the public is informed on its terms and that "they might act accordingly" at the ballot box, Gerston said.

Twitter: @peard33