Among the secretive, almost religious community of expert security engineers, breaking your own encryption is seen as shameful and unholy
Apple’s security team are a tight-knit tribe of hackers driven by a strict belief system and with almost unparalleled power around the company’s Cupertino campus, according to a former employee who worked closely with them.
“They’ll come into your office and just sit down with you and argue until they win, but they will always win,” said the engineer, who worked in a different department at Apple and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They dressed the same as us, they’re just as fun to talk to, but they’re fierce. They know how much responsibility they have and how vulnerable it could be.”
Software engineers, especially those who work the deep foundational security code, like to see themselves as being driven by craft and art more than money. To break that security code – as the FBI has ordered Apple engineers to do this week – would not be just politically and commercially difficult for Apple but emotionally hard for engineers, according to former employees, a psychologist who specializes in engineer issues and leaders in the engineering community.
Engineers have a strong, almost religious belief system around their work. In this way of thinking, the FBI’s request is not just shortsighted and worldly but immoral.
“It’s like asking Superman to engineer his own kryptonite,” said David Noor, a therapist and software engineer who counsels technologists. “I can only imagine how hard it is to be those engineers today.” Noor said if the Apple engineers had to bow to FBI pressure and break their own encryption, it would be a personal shame they would take “to the grave”.
It’s like asking Superman to engineer his own kryptonite. I can only imagine how hard it is to be those engineers today.
Chris Noor, therapist for technologists
“If push came to shove, and those engineers were asked to do something that’s so contrary to their values, they’d go to their graves so sad they’d done that. It would be a monumental thing for them emotionally,” he said. “Most engineers realize there’s compromise in the world, but it is very hard for them.”
Andy Aude, a former Apple engineer and current Stanford computer science student, described an unwritten set of ethics in his community. “In the software world there’s so little formal education, there’s no one rigid school of thought, but there are these nebulous shared values that emerge through practice,” Aude said.
This belief system often means engineers will take lower paying jobs in return for the prestige of working for a perfectionist culture. One explained it as the reason Square gets better engineers than LinkedIn, even in the face of higher offers.
“The best engineers in San Francsico, the really good ones, they don’t care how much they make, all they care about is what they make and how well it performs,” said Steve Derico, who hosts an engineer meetup with 3,000 attendees. “That’s what drives their decision making – legacy and craftsman development.”
It can be almost obsessive: “Developing is like golf, once you do it you just want to get a little bit better every time,” he said.
Engineers who code especially beautifully become famous in their communities, and the works are seen as almost religious, according to several developers.
“This sort of encryption is seen as sort of a holy, sacred thing,” said Ryan Orbuch, a serial entrepreneur who won Apple’s design award in 2013. “People worship this kind of crypto.”
Orbuch said when the FBI asks Apple engineers to break something, completing the act goes against that almost religious way of thinking.
“When you do InfoSec and your job is security, your moral view of the world is based on the fact that you can provide security through math, security that’s complete and secure not just because of any social contract but because literally the math works,” Orbuch said. “When someone comes and says I want you to break this for me, it goes against everything we believe in.”