The fight between Apple and the FBI has become so hot that it has captured the mind of the public, which means that it’s being oversimplified and distorted. In order to evaluate the leadership of Apple chief Tim Cook, we need to remember what’s different and significant about this case.
A line of argument getting lots of traction is that Apple (AAPL) has opened many phones for law enforcement—70, it’s widely reported—so why won’t it open the phone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people, as the FBI is requesting? The answer is in two parts. First, those phones that Apple opened previously were earlier models with different, weaker, security. The phone in question, an iPhone 5c, can’t currently be opened by Apple or the FBI or anyone else; that super-strong security is an important reason why iPhones are increasingly used by enterprises—companies, schools, hospitals, governments. The phone in question is owned by Farook’s employer, San Bernardino County.
Sign up for Power Sheet, Fortune’s daily morning newsletter on leaders and leadership.
The second part of the answer is that the FBI isn’t asking Apple to open the phone. It’s asking Apple to create an operating system just for this case, which could then be loaded into the phone and would enable the FBI to try every possible passcode until it finds the one that works. (Without a special new operating system, the phone would wipe all the data on the phone after 10 incorrect attempts.) This is a significant feature of the case that could have broad, large implications. The FBI isn’t asking Apple for information that it has and that would open the phone. It’s asking (and a court is now ordering) Apple to create something that would be useful to the FBI. As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson writes, “If it [the government] can tell Apple, which has been accused of no wrongdoing, to sit down and write a custom operating system for it, what else could it do?” That is, could any of us be compelled by the government to create something new?
That’s the question that Cook, in seeking relief from the court order, is forcing the courts, the government, the tech industry, and the society to confront. He cannot know the result. This is becoming a public relations battle—the government filed a motion on Friday accusing Apple of defying the court for marketing reasons—and it could go in any direction. So far neither side is winning the public’s hearts and minds. Pro-Apple demonstrators have planned rallies for Tuesday in 30 cities worldwide, but a USA Today poll shows that 51% of Americans favor the FBI.
Given the notoriety of the case, it’s plausible that Cook already believes the unlocking of the phone is inevitable, and he just wants as much influence as possible over the terms on which it’s done. It’s certain that he understands the magnitude of the issues involved and knows that they must be resolved in order for him to run Apple. That’s responsible CEO leadership. Whether he’s forcing these issues for larger reasons is beyond knowing—we can’t read his mind—but the effects of any resolution will extend far beyond Apple.