Apple's Ethical Dillema: National Security or Company's Integrity

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Managers of business organizations often face ethical dilemmas in their work environment. The choice of what course of action to take is often difficult because most company executives lack training in the field of ethics. However, as managers, they are obligated to make the best decision without compromising the values and beliefs of the company and its stakeholders. In the case of building a backdoor to the iPhone, the Apple company’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, faced a tough situation where the US Federal government required the company to compromise its policies of maintaining user privacy to help in an investigation which was deemed to be a threat to the national security. This paper analyzes the ethical dilemma presented in this case and assess how the CEO should have resolved the issue.

Executive Management Decisions

In order to identify where the ethical issue arises in this case, it is first imperative to analyze management decisions that are required by any manager of a business organization. Company executives have the responsibility of making decisions that have both direct and indirect impact on the shareholders of the firm such as customers, employees, creditors, investors, the community, etcetera. Good choices guarantee the most benefits and minimal risks (Mill, 2016). Therefore, decision making is a tough responsibility for managers because it involves making critical decisions on behalf of the organization.

Managers are required to make vital decisions like firing employees, halting or commencing major projects, or making organizational changes which present significant amounts of risk to the business. In this case study, the CEO, Tim Cook, made tough choices such as making changes in the company to allow the undertaking of non-business initiatives- a decision that was highly criticized by the investors and firing valuable employees who failed to fit the new corporate culture of the company. Hence, the FBI tried to get the company to abide by its demands by coming to the CEO.

Ethical dilemmas come into existence when company executives are required to make decisions which have conflicting consequences for different stakeholders (MacDougall, Bagdasarov, Johnson, & Mumford, 2015). Thus, the implication of these decisions would have a benefiting aspect to one party but significantly harm another. Similarly, the decision to build a backdoor to the iPhone would help the FBI’s investigation by providing access to personal information in the phone but would significantly compromise the company’s culture which is ensuring privacy to its customer’s information. Therefore, the CEO had to make an ethical decision to resolve the problem based on his beliefs.

The Dilemmas Faced by the CEO

Tim Cook was approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation on several occasions requesting the company’s help in an investigation for a case that saw many innocent American citizens lose their lives. Conventionally, many human beings would comply with such requests because of their humanity and compassionate nature. In addition, the appropriate course of action in such a case is to assist the FBI to get criminals off the street. However, Tim Cook was supposed to make this decision as a CEO of a company and not just a normal human being. The FBI’s demands involved compromising the security of one of the company’s customer by hacking their iPhone device. Therefore, the first ethical dilemma, in this case, was whether the CEO was willing to choose to help the FBI in their investigation over his company.

Secondly, Tim Cook always took pride in the fact that people had a right to keep their personal lives secret. In fact, he managed to live with the secret of his true sexual orientation for a very long time. Similarly, he tried to incorporate the same culture in the company by strongly advocating for openness in the workplace. Hence, the Apple company, unlike other technology companies, takes pride in making its devices and customer information secure and out of reach of third parties. Therefore, according to Mr. Cook, complying with the demands of FBI to build a backdoor to the specified iPhone gadget and hack the information would be a contradiction of what him and the company he represents stood for.

Therefore, the ultimate ethical dilemma was whether the country’s national security was more important to the company compared to the trust of its customers. According to the letter written to the FBI, the Apple company perceived that the government was asking them to create a dangerous yet non-existing software and which would later be used to spy on iPhone users. Brand success had been achieved mostly by the security of the Apple products. Thus, by accepting the FBI demands, Apple company would be jeopardizing its sales.

Cook’s Responsibilities in Regard to the Ethical Dilemma

In this case, one of the primary responsibilities of Tim Cook is to maintain loyalty to the company’s stakeholders, particularly the customers and employees. One of the major responsibilities of business executives is to ensure that the company policy is maintained (Kolk, 2016). One common way of achieving this goal is by leading by an example. Other giant technology corporations like Facebook and Google depend on obtaining people’s information for proprietary purposes. Hence, these companies tap access people’s data such as browsing histories to determine preferences and get insights on people’s wants and needs. Unlike these companies, Apple relies on selling computers, mobile phones, and other technology gadgets. Hence, the company’s philosophy is to deliver quality devices that guarantee the safety of the user’s personal information. This philosophy explains the high level of encryption on Apple’s OS X software and the regular updates for security patches. Therefore, Tim Cook owes to his customers the sense of privacy by refusing to comply with the FBI’s demands.

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Contradictions to this responsibility exist following the government’s numerous attempt to make the company breach its privacy policy by hacking into a user’s device. According to the CEO, abiding by the government’s demands would be the same as destroying the heavy encryptions that the company have worked so hard to ensure in their operating systems. Similarly, building a backdoor would put the user’s information in jeopardy because malicious hackers would have access to people’s devices. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that the FBI would use the backdoor for the one case only and not spy on people through the mobile devices. Hence, the demands are severe contradictions of the CEO’s responsibility to ensure the company’s policy of ensuring the privacy of its customers.

Tim Cook was unwilling to assist the FBI in this matter because of his strong advocacy for personal privacy. Hence, his management style perceived that any decision that contradicts the right to privacy is unworthy for both personal and business purposes. Therefore, his responsibilities were intertwined with the corporate philosophy.

Ways of Resolving the Ethical Dilemma

Tim Cook had already ensured that the necessary measures are in place to help him unable to jeopardize the company by relinquishing privacy rights when faced with such a dilemma. He oversaw the development of an operating system which could not be hacked even by the Apple engineers in order to stay loyal to his customer’s privacy needs. However, this issue could have been solved by considering the legal issues of the situation and the code of ethics.

First, Tim Cook would have assessed the judicial implication of his decisions to either help the FBI with the investigation or maintain the customer’s privacy philosophy which he so much believed in. All people are forbidden from breaking the law. However, consequences should befall those who fail to obey the law. Hence, Tim Cook should have assessed whether the information of the owner of the phone was worth protecting. Weighing the benefits of complying to the FBI’s demands against the business implications would have provided important insights on how to assess this ethical dilemma. Hence, this issue may have been resolved by assessing whether the law was broken.

Secondly, Tim Cook may have resolved these dilemmas by reviewing the code of ethics. Reviewing the code is important for defining the problem and deciding the ideal ethical theory for dealing with the matter. Some situations require the use of the theory of deontology, or Utilitarianism, or virtue ethics depending on the nature of the dilemma. Application of a renown ethical philosophy helps one to make the best ethical decision when faced with a dilemma (Grant, Arjoon, & McGhee, 2017).

Finally, Tim Cook should have sought input from others regarding the matter. For instance, discussing the information with the board of directors of the company in order to identify the business consequences would have been beneficial to ensure that the decision made is the best ethical solution to the problem. By having input from others, people tend to eliminate biases that inhibit proper ethical judgements (Neal, 2010). Having insights from people with diverse backgrounds and aspect of life is critical for decision making, especially when the decisions could have serious consequences.

What Should Cook Have Done?

First, Tim Cook should have weighed the benefits and risks of making either choice before resolving the matter. Then, he should have selected the choice with the greatest good and minimal risks, a theory called utilitarianism (Mill, 2016). According to utilitarian philosophy, the best ethical decision is the one that achieves the greatest good. Hence, Tim Cook should have evaluated the benefits of avoiding a security disaster against the risks of compromising the company’s philosophy. Similarly, the morality of the CEO would be necessary for making such a judgement call. Some people can live with the fact that they had a chance to save public lives from terror threats while others cannot. The burden of making such a decision alone could be avoided especially in this case by involving the board of governors in the decision making and coming to a vote. Decisions made by a panel are usually subjected to thorough reviews and addressed from different perspectives. Hence, this solution would ensure that Tim Cook’s values and beliefs of personal privacy do not cloud the company’s decision regarding the matter at hand.

Similarly, Tim Cook should also put the outcomes of each decision to perspective. Despite the fact that both decisions may have dire consequences, it is best to determine which consequences people can overcome. In this case, loss of human lives is far more important than loss of customers. Therefore, one should not allow this to happen if they are in a position to prevent the tragedy from happening. However, spying on human lives is a clear violation of the human rights to privacy. Everyone has a right to have a personal life free from government surveillance. Hence, Cook should reach some form of middle ground to ensure that the company does not entirely compromise both situations.


In conclusion, business executives constantly face ethical dilemmas in their work environments. However, they are obligated to make the best decision without compromising the values and beliefs of the company and its stakeholders. Tim Cook made tough choices such as making changes in the company to allow the undertaking of non-business initiatives and firing valuable employees who failed to fit the new corporate culture of the company. Regardless of his strong perception of personal privacy, he was faced by an ethical dilemma of ensuring national security by compromising his company’s philosophy. However, this issue could have been solved by considering the legal issues of the situation and the code of ethics. Therefore, Tim Cook should have implemented the utilitarian theory of ethics and insights from his colleagues to make the ideal ethical solution to the dilemma.

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