Apple boss blasts his competitors and own government

Data collection is being used to the extent of "surveillance", Tim Cook said.
25 October 2018

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple talks at the Debating Ethics event at the European Parliament in Brussels on Oct 24, 2018. Source: Aris Oikonomou/AFP

Apple CEO Tim Cook has launched a broadside on the US administration’s lack of willingness to enact privacy laws, and said that many technology companies were misusing data and artificial intelligence (AI).

“It’s time to face facts,” he said, “we will never achieve technology’s true potential without the full faith and confidence of the people who use it.”

Cook was speaking at the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC), in Brussels, Belgium.

He was complimentary about his hosts, the EU Parliament’s work on data protection, saying:

“We should celebrate the transformative work of the European institutions tasked with the successful implementation of the GDPR. We also celebrate the new steps taken, not only here in Europe but around the world: in Singapore, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand. In many more nations regulators are asking tough questions, and crafting effective reform. It is time for the rest of the world, including my home country, to follow your lead.”

Cook said his company Apple is “in full support of a comprehensive, federal privacy law in the United States,” before going on to sketch out the four priorities for the US, as he saw them:

  • The right to have personal data that has been collected minimized or anonymized.
  • Users should have a right to know what data is collected, and what it’s for. He said that it is necessary to “empower users to decide what collection is legitimate and what isn’t.”
  • Data should belong to the person from whom it was gathered, not the gathering company. Therefore users should be able to get copies of, correct, and delete any data held about them.
  • There should be a right to expect data security.

According to Cook, some of his peers at the heads of companies “endorse reform in public and then resist and undermine it behind closed doors,” thereby reflecting his competitors’ sometimes reluctance to remove the currency of data from their commercial models.

“Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponized against us with military efficiency […] These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold.”

He added, “this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

“We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance!”

There is a thin line between data collection for the sake of surveillance and permissions given freely by entering into a contract: personal data in return for “free” services, for example. That is the type agreement many of us enter into every day: we get access to a social platform, the company running it gets data in return for its trouble.

But because of recent changes in technological ability, the situation is at a tipping point. According to Cook, AI is being misused in terms of data privacy and processing:

“Artificial intelligence is one area I think a lot about. At its core this technology promises to learn from people individually to benefit us all. But advancing AI by collecting huge [numbers of] personal profiles is laziness, not efficiency. For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values, including privacy.”

While Cook is seen by investors and industry watchers as a safe pair of business hands capable of running one of the world’s biggest companies with skill, his delivery and style is often said to lack the aplomb of his predecessor, Steve Jobs. But one remark could have been penned by Jobs himself:

“[…] technology’s potential is and always must be rooted in the faith people have in it: in the optimism and the creativity that stirs the hearts of individuals. In its promise and capacity to make the world a better place.”

Cook’s speech may not have made “a dent in the universe” but it may have helped attitudes to data privacy to shift.