Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook said in a speech today that customer data was being “weaponised with military efficiency” by companies to increase profit.
Cook, speaking at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels, said Apple supported a federal privacy law in the United States and also touted the iPhone maker’s commitment to protect users’ data and privacy.
Issues over how data is used and how consumers can protect their personal information are under the spotlight after big breaches of data privacy involving millions of internet and social media users in Europe and the United States.
Apple, which designs many of its products so that it cannot see users’ data, has largely avoided the data privacy scandals that have enmeshed its rivals Google and Facebook this year.
“The desire to put profits over privacy is nothing new,” Cook told the audience of privacy regulators and business leaders. He cited former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who, in a Harvard Law Review article in 1890, warned that gossip was no longer the resource of the idle and the vicious but had become a trade.
“Today that trade has exploded into a data industrial complex. Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency,” he said. “These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesised, traded, and sold.
“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 wishes and fears…our hopes and dreams.
“Taken to its extreme, this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is then run through algorithms that can serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into hardened convictions.
“We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance. And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them,” he said.
Cook also warned about governments abusing users’ data and their trust, a concern for many with elections coming up in several countries worldwide. “Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” Cook said. “Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”
He said Apple fully backed a federal privacy law in the United States, something Europe has already introduced via its General Data Protection Regulation. “Users should always know what data is being collected and what it is being collected for,” he said. “This is the only way to empower users to decide what collection is legitimate and what isn’t. Anything less is a sham.”