Apple CEO Tim Cook can probably defy the US government all he wants and not go to jail

Risky stand.
Risky stand.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Does Apple CEO Tim Cook risk going to jail by opposing the US government request for help hacking into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone?

Cook has said he’ll pursue the legal challenge as far as the US Supreme Court. That sounds courageous, and his stand patriotic. But what he hasn’t said is whether he’s prepared to carry his defiance as far as other Americans who also have taken on the law—journalists, for example, who have gone to jail in cases involving the disclosure of sources and other proprietary material to judges.

It’s in fact not clear yet whether Cook could eventually be subject to jail for refusing a court order: Some experts say he is. If they are right, a judge could jail Cook for contempt as the case wends its way through the federal courts, that is if his lawyers couldn’t successfully argue against any penalties until the case reached its natural conclusion in the courts.

But Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law at American University, told Quartz that it’s Apple as a corporation, and not Cook himself, that is potentially liable to a contempt charge. Lee Tien, a privacy lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees that Cook himself doesn’t appear to be at risk, but that, in the event that Apple were charged with contempt, it could be subject to stiff fines. Tien notes that Yahoo has said that, in 2014, the US government threatened the company with $250,000-a-day fines in a surveillance case.

Whether Cook is at risk of jail or not, some observers argue that it would be a colossal PR coup for him and Apple if he does end up behind bars for a few days on behalf of privacy. Something short of that—unless the government improbably folds its hand—might seem anti-climactic at best.

Apple did not respond to an email requesting comment.