Why does Apple CEO Tim Cook have to fly privately?
So hackers can't steal Apple's secrets from his devices.
This is relevant in light of the filing on Wednesday by Apple Inc. with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In that filing, Apple explained that it "requires [Cook to] use private aircraft for all business and personal travel. This policy was implemented in 2017 in the interests of security and efficiency based on our global profile and the highly visible nature of Mr. Cook’s role as CEO."
A rule to fly private rule seems like the height of profligacy and elitism, but Apple has very good reasons to demand it. Put simply, this isn't about Cook's personal security, it's about Apple's proprietary security.
For a start, the personal threat level against Cook is very likely at a low level. Apple is a popular, relatively uncontroversial company that has a broad international customer base. This means that most threats against Cook are probably similar to those facing other nonpolitical celebrities: predominantly originating from mentally ill and/or obsessive individuals.
In turn, by virtue of the fact that airports are secure environments and that Cook would almost certainly fly first class, his security team could be confident that he would not be at undue threat by flying with the unwashed masses.
But as I say, this isn't about Cook's person or his ego, it's about what he carries with him.
Cook is briefed on the most cutting edge of Apple technology and software research projects. These projects are the lifeblood investments of Apple's present and future value, explaining why Apple's stock price has risen from $75 dollars per share to $175 per share over the past five years. Apple has been able to charge a premium for its products because consumers believe its products are some of the very best out there.
Now consider the following scenario.
Reflecting its deep focus on the Asian market, Apple announces that Cook will shortly travel to Singapore to visit an Apple store and make a speech.
Everyone in Singapore quickly gets very excited. But so also do a few professionals in Ministry of State Security in Beijing, the Mossad or Aman in Jerusalem, and the DGSE in Paris. These intelligence services, renowned for their interest in American proprietary software and information, sense a grand opportunity.
They search out the possible flights Cook will take from the international airports in San Jose and San Francisco that are closest to Apple headquarters. Quickly learning that two flights a day leave San Francisco on a direct route to Singapore, they hack into the United Airlines and Singapore Airlines booking systems to learn which flight Cook will join.
Conversely, they book an intelligence officer into first class on each flight for a number of days: the payoff, they're confident, will be worth it.
The day before his speech in Singapore, Cook appears on one of the flights.
Sitting next to him is "Ciro," a good looking, well-spoken Italian who is traveling for his own business meeting. Ciro minds his own business for the first two hours, then sparks up a conversation. Five minutes later, he lets it slip that he's from Bolzano; cropped right in the middle of the Dolomite mountain range.
Cook has heard of the area; its hiking trails are some of the best on Earth, and he loves hiking. The two men chat on and off, Cook likes that Ciro doesn't show whether he knows Cook is the CEO of Apple. Three hours later, trusting his new friend, Cook picks up his iPhone and goes to the bathroom. In a lapse of awareness, however, he leaves his Macbook at his seat.
With the skill of a magician, Ciro slots a little gadget into a USB port or against the software casing. A few seconds later, he removes the gadget knowing that Cook's hard drive has been copied and his system infected with a nice little gift.
Cook returns to his seat and with a smile, Ciro keeps talking about hiking. But not too much: Ciro doesn't want to be annoying.
Over the next few months, Ciro's gift will turn on and off at opportune times and feed information back to a mobile server near Apple headquarters. A year later, Apple finds out that its proprietary information has somehow found its way into the hands of a Chinese, French, or Israeli competitor. Billions of dollars in research and sales have been lost.
Don't get me wrong, Apple could mitigate some of this risk by taking precautions such as having an assistant sit next to Cook, for example. Even then, if any of Cook's carry-on devices are sending out or reaching out for any kind of signal, Ciro might only need to be on the same plane.
Yet all of this can be avoided by flying private. For a company worth as much as Apple, private jets are a minuscule price to pay for security!