18 August 2019
Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company will support a US privacy law in a speech at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters
Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company will support a US privacy law in a speech at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

Apple boss slams ‘weaponization’ of customer data

Apple chief executive Tim Cook said customer data is being “weaponized with military efficiency” by companies to increase profit and called for a federal privacy law in the United States, Reuters reports.

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s ad-based business model and said users are aware of a trade-off for free services.

Cook, speaking at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels on Wednesday, said Apple will support a US privacy law and also touted the iPhone maker’s commitment to protect users’ data and privacy.

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 a packed audience of privacy regulators, corporate executives and other participants.

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 US.

Cook in his speech 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 weaponized against us with military efficiency,” Cook said.

“These scraps of data … each one harmless enough on its own … are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded, and sold,” Cook said.

“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.

Facebook’s ad-based model

Zuckerberg, speaking via video message, said Facebook users are aware of the trade-off between a free service and advertisements.

“Instead of charging people, we charge advertisers to show ads. People consistently tell us that they want a free service and that if they going to see ads to get it, then they want those ads to be relevant,” he said.

Facebook is investing heavily in both security and privacy even as this impacts on its profitability, Zuckerberg said.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai welcomed the global focus on privacy, saying that the company is doing its part by taking measures to allow users more control over their data.

“User trust is the foundation for everything we do, and privacy and security are fundamental tenets of that,” he said by video message. “We’ve been working for years to provide more transparency and control for our users, and we appreciate the input and partnership from data protection authorities.”

Cook also warned about governments abusing users’ data and their trust, a concern for many with elections coming up in several countries.

“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.”

Cook said Apple fully backs 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.”

Google+ data breach

In Washington, two US senators said Alphabet Inc.’s disclosure of user data vulnerabilities at Google+ raised “serious questions” over whether it violated a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, potentially exposing Google to penalties, Reuters reported.

Alphabet said this month it would shut down the consumer version of its failed social network Google+ and tighten its data-sharing policies after announcing the private profile data of at least 500,000 users may have been exposed to hundreds of external developers.

The issue, the latest in a run of privacy issues to hit big US tech companies, was discovered and patched in March.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Google opted not to disclose the security issue due to fears of regulatory scrutiny, citing unnamed sources and a memo prepared by Google’s legal and policy staff for senior executives.

Senators Amy Klobuchar and Catherine Cortez Masto wrote to Pichai on Wednesday asking why the company had failed to disclose the issue for six months.

The incident raises “serious questions” about whether the company violated a 2011 consent decree with the FTC, they wrote, adding that Google failed to “protect consumers’ data and kept consumers in the dark about serious security risks”.

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