Analysis At a European conference for privacy watchdogs on Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook praised EU data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli for defending privacy and warned that technology, for all its utility, can do harm rather than good.
"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. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy."
Cook lamented the tech industry's data-driven economy without invoking the names of ad-focused companies like Facebook or Google, the traditional villains when Apple plays privacy paladin.
"Today [the gossip trade criticized by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1890] has exploded into a data industrial complex," said Cook. "Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponized against us with military efficiency."
And he took at swing at data gathering to feed artificial intelligence algorithms. "Advancing AI by collecting huge personal profiles is laziness, not efficiency," he said. "For artificial intelligence to be truly smart, it must respect human values including privacy."
Cook repeated his contention that "privacy is a fundamental human right" while also recognizing that "not everyone sees it that way," a tacit at admission that in the absence of broad legal support it's not much of a right.
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Apple it might be argued does not see it that way when it sells Google access to iOS customers for $9bn. That's how much Google is expected to pay Apple this year to be the default search provider on iDevices, according to a Goldman Sachs estimate.
Alex Stamos, former CISO of Facebook and presently an adjunct professor at Stanford University in the US, took the opportunity to point out a longstanding inconsistency in Cook's position, specifically Apple's desire to do business in China, where authorities have legal support to obtain just about any data they might want and algorithmic governance is an aspiration.
Apple, don't forget, banned encrypted messaging and privacy-protecting, anti-censorship VPN apps from its software store in China to please Beijing's authoritarian regime, and keep those dollars and devices flowing from the Middle Kingdom's factories.
Stamos, via Twitter said, "I believe that Chinese people should have the same access to fundamental human rights as the rest of the world. Apple needs to document how they protect data stored by a PRC-owned cloud provider."
Stamos would like Apple to explain the terms under which its government-owned local partner Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Industry can access iCloud backup data.
"iMessage is the only [end-to-end] encrypted app allowed by the Great Firewall; what was required to get this concession from the Ministry of State Security?" he asked, allowing that it's possible Apple did not have to compromise its tech at all.
In a phone call with The Register, Samm Sacks, senior technology fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that at least on paper, people in China have more privacy protection than they do in the US.
China's recently enacted privacy rules have some similarity to Europe's GDPR. "Personal data cannot be collected without consent," she said, while acknowledging that comes with caveats. The government, she said, has multiple laws it can apply at its discretion to demand data for matters of national security.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about how [China's privacy regime] is implemented," said Sacks.
Cook in his speech said Apple supports a federal data protection law in the US similar to the GDPR.
In a phone interview with The Register, Matthew Heiman, senior fellow at the National Security Institute and chair of the Cyber and Privacy Working Group at the Regulatory Transparency Project, cautioned that Apple's celebration of its position on privacy should be seen in light of its business model and competitive concerns.
'Market interest to be genuine'
"On a certain level I think Apple is somewhat genuine about this topic when it's in its market interest to be genuine," said Heiman. "It's easy to chant this mantra when Apple's business model is so much less dependent on data than social media platforms. It's a bit like saying there should be really high mile-per-gallon standards when you sell bikes."
Heiman said the reason the US tech industry is the envy of the world is that regulation was relatively light compared to elsewhere, allowing companies like AirBnB, Facebook, Google, and others to develop.
When companies promote regulations, he said, he worries they're doing so to make it more difficult for challengers to enter the market. He explained that the big three automakers have pushed for safety standards knowing that new market entrants would have a hard time.
"I worry Apple is advocating the same thing," he said. ®