Perhaps because it was Apple CEO Tim Cook sounding the alarm, his admonishments that our personal data “is being weaponized against us with military efficiency” are all the more real.
Cook, the long-time Apple insider who took over from Steve Jobs, shares his predecessor’s stance on privacy, which is a rare difference in the world of tech firms who make money from their users. Facebook, Google, YouTube and to a lesser extent Twitter, use the information provided by users to sell advertising against. Instead of buying a product (a phone or a software program) people are buying a service and paying for it with their personal data.
Of course, we know this from the ongoing train wreck that is Facebook’s attempts to shore up its amorphous privacy standards and the previous lackadaisical permissiveness with which companies like Cambridge Analytica could exploit.
But Cook is the king of this world of big tech, as the CEO of one of the big tech firms in Silicon Valley – even if there are still debates about how innovative Apple is under him.
Speaking at a privacy conference in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union which instituted the brilliant user-protecting General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation with significant punishments for transgressors, Cook warned that advertising-driven business models have “exploded into a data industrial complex”.
Although he didn’t expressly name Facebook or Google but his target is clear: “Every day, billions of dollars change hands and countless decisions are made on the basis of our likes and dislikes, our friends and families, our relationships and conversations, our wishes and fears, our hopes and dreams,” he told the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC).
“These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold,” he added calling for “comprehensive federal privacy law” in the United States.
This data isn’t just used for advertising, he reminded everyone how some sites (yes YouTube and Facebook we’re all looking at you) try to keep your attention (and advertising-viewing eyeballs) by showing you progressively controversial material. “Your profile is then run through algorithms that can serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into hardened convictions.”
These “harmful, even deadly, effects of these narrowed worldviews” and their consequences can’t be sugarcoated. “This is surveillance. And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them.”
The two Apple CEOs have spoken out before about privacy and their concerns, including Jobs admonishing Zuckerberg at a 2010 conference. Cook wrote an open letter to Google in 2014 saying: “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”
Apple – and for that matter Microsoft, the other major player in the tech space – make their money selling products and not advertising against personal data.
Zuckerberg’s response to Cook’s “extremely glib” comments were a defence of providing a service like Facebook for free: “If you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something people can afford.”
Cook’s rally cry shouldn’t be ignored: “This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy. And those of us who believe in technology’s potential for good must not shrink from this moment.”
Our children and grandchildren will thanks everyone who takes a stand against this new “data industrial complex”.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail