At a privacy conference on Wednesday morning in Brussels, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a speech in which he denounced the current state of data collection and targeted misinformation, discussing aspects of Google’s ad-targeting system and Facebook’s social profile-building methods. Cook claimed that this system of data collection, collation, and targeting was a “data-industrial complex,” which poses a threat to our privacy and democracy itself.
The crisis is real,” said Cook. “It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy.”
In the most newsworthy portion of the speech, Cook announced his unwavering support for a new federal privacy law in the United States, declaring it a necessary step to counter growing torrents of data.
“We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States,” Cook said. He added that emphasizing these laws should include rights to data minimization, disclosure, security, and user access-all provided by Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).
However, as tech sites like The Verge indicate, Cook’s pro-privacy stance isn’t as steadfast as this moment makes it seem. As every major tech firm has faced backlash due to privacy scandals, they have all endorsed some sort of privacy bill, sometimes through direct Congressional testimony. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have spoken of regulation as a given, and have told Congress that their only inquiry is how the bill should be worded. Google even released the layout of a responsible data-privacy bill, just before an official Senate Commerce hearing this September. While Microsoft may not have been hit as hard as a regulatory target, CEO Satya Nadella has spoken along similar lines, voicing support for GDPR as “a good, sound regulation”.
Tech firms are usually more restrictive when it comes to new privacy laws, but it seems like regulations are on their way whether they approve or not. If they want to have a say in the wording of the legislation, it seems that their best option is to get with the program. If they pretend to be in favour of the bill itself, they can likely tilt it towards their favour. With the European GDPR already in place, the serious damage has already been done.
Cook’s speech might have been more extreme simply because Apple’s business doesn’t rely on targeted advertising. However, it would be inaccurate to imply that Apple doesn’t have a dog in this fight.
The new iPhone is a handheld face-recognition device while the Apple Watch requires personal health and medical data, even if none of this data is stored by Apple’s main servers. While the privacy procedures are strong for both these systems, it isn’t unforeseeable that new legislation could mess with Apple’s objectives.
In addition, Apple seems intent on doing business in China, which brings a whole new set of privacy issues. Congress’ bill does not threaten this goal, and Cook’s fiery speeches about ad-targeting could be an attempt to keep it that way.
It must be affirmed that Apple has worked extensively on improving user privacy. Apple’s device security is extremely sophisticated, and in turn health data tends to stay secure. In addition, Apple has stifled web-tracking initiatives through the tightening Safari defaults.
However, Apple is still a tech firm, and its products are caught in the web of data storage that Cook refers to. At the end of the day, Apple is more similar to Google and Facebook than Tim Cook wants to let on.