Why the iCloud Photo Scandal Could Push Apple Back Into Decline

iCloud interface design

Says Hollywood: 'A little late now, Apple'

Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Sept. 3 pounded on a number of us who had argued that a big part of the problem with the iCloud photo leak scandal was that you shouldn't put naked pictures into a public cloud service. He argued that, as a customer, you expect to be protected; Apple broke that trust twice, first when it failed to adequately protect the pictures and then it effectively blamed the celebrities for the problem.

We're not wrong to suggest that you shouldn't put high-value data (like naked celebrity pictures) into an easy-to-access public service like iCloud. However, I don't disagree with Stewart, either: It is the job of the service provider to assure the information won't be compromised.

When Is the Customer Wrong?

The right answer to that question should be almost never, at least with respect to using a security product. When you supply security, you tacitly promise to give customers peace of mind.

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If you see a threat and advise customers to implement a policy to mitigate that threat, and they don't do it, then any problem resulting from that decision is on them. Now, you have to make an effort in line with the exposure. You can't just say, "Hey, I think you should do this" and then accept that they won't, knowing they've screwed themselves. (Actually, you can, but it's a really bad idea.)

In the case of the nude pictures, the celebrities were never advised by Apple to implement dual-factor authentication, and they weren't compelled to use more secure passwords and safer challenge questions. Apple assumed knowledge that the celebrities didn't have, or it simply didn't care that they didn't have it – working under the policy that, if customers are stupid, then that's their problem.

But it's not. As we watch this play out, Apple's brand is being damaged by the celebrity response – which, as you'd expect, isn't all that positive after being effectively called stupid. In the end, it really was Apple's job to make sure its customers didn't do stupid things.

All Customers Aren't Created Equal

Most of us in IT know that, while we can put normal service calls into our operating service process, we'd better step up if we get a call from someone influential, even if the customer isn't paying for it.   For instance, if the CEO of an account's email repository gets hosed, we know to put our best resources on it and expedite the fix for two reasons. If we do a great job, he or she may become a fan. If we don't, we could get locked out of the account indefinitely.

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Celebrities and folks very active in social media now fall into that "someone influential" category. If they get pissed, they take their anger public – and we'll hear from our own CEO, and not in a good way, if that happens.

Apple's marketing model pushes celebrities as unpaid advocates. This is impressive work, since using celebrities as advocates typically costs a lot; Apple generally gets them for the cost of a free phone. But the downside is that the celebrities don't actually work for them; when they get upset, they go public.

In this case, this asset was damaged twice. First, Apple effectively implied the celebrities were stupid, which degrades their value as an advocate for Apple products. Would you buy the same product that a stupid person bought? Then it caused the celebrities to use their influence against Apple.

Learning From Apple's Bad Example

We can learn from how a company does things well and when a company makes mistakes. Since much of Apple's growth is based on the strongest advocacy model in the consumer market, damaging that billion-dollar asset by foolishly blaming high-profile customers for mistakes they didn't know not to make looks like a precursor to a decline.

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Customer advocacy is Apple's growth engine. If its advocates no longer trust and now bad-mouth the company instead of praising it and its products, then growth should turn into decline. Granted, one event alone won't do this, but Apple's actions appear endemic, demonstrating that it doesn't understand the model Steve Jobs created. This will cause immediate damage to Apple's Sept. 9 launch event, and likely cost the company sales – but if this attitude isn't corrected eventually, it will put Apple back into decline.  

There's a simple lesson here: If the customer doesn't know to do the right thing, your response isn't to blame the customer but, rather, to apologize and implement a process to ensure the customer is a better part of the solution, not the core of the problem.  

Striving not to be stupid, as a customer, is likely a good practice to personally implement as well. Check your passwords and challenge questions, everyone.

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