Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tim Cook Speaks About Privacy at ICDPPC

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Apple CEO Tim Cook today called on the US government to pass “a comprehensive federal privacy law,” saying that tech companies that collect wide swaths of user data are engaging in surveillance.

Speaking at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC) in Brussels, Cook said that businesses are creating “an enduring digital profile” of each user and that the trade of such data “has exploded into a data-industrial complex.”

“This is surveillance,” Cook said. “And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them. This should make us very uncomfortable.”

Apple is, of course, imperfect in this regard: while they try to restrict the ways in which app developers may collect sensitive data, there are plenty of apps that still ask for access to your contact list, ostensibly to allow you to find friends using the same app or service, but without clearly indicating how they will treat that list over a long term; and, as others have mentioned, they have retained Google as the default search provider in Safari on all platforms. The latter is particularly hard to reconcile — last year, they changed web searches made through Siri or Apple Search from Bing to Google. Google reportedly paid Apple $9 billion in 2018 for this privilege, which feels a little bit like a bribe to collect Safari users’ personal information.

On the other hand, Apple has made strides to reduce users’ dependency on Google. The website suggestions that appear as you type in the address bar are not driven by Google, but by Apple’s own web crawler; the suggestions in Search on iOS for things like the weather and sports scores are also not powered by Google. Apple has also continued to roll out privacy protections in Safari with features like Intelligent Tracking Prevention.

Natasha Singer of the New York Times, on Twitter:

It’s much easier to be a privacy hawk when your business doesn’t depend on surveillance-based advertising. Even so, Tim Cook’s critique of the “data industrial complex” is a watershed for tech industry discourse.

It’s also much easier to not build a business dependent on surveillance when you are a privacy hawk.

Cook’s speech reads to me as an honest representation of his own stance and Apple’s ideals about how data ought to be collected and stored. Privacy does not seem like an add-on, but an integral part of the company’s development processes. It is a principled stance.