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Tim Cook

‘This is surveillance’: Apple boss takes aim at ‘weaponisation’ of customer data

  • Tim Cook warns of a ‘data industrial complex’ where there is a ‘desire to put profits over privacy’
  • ‘If green is your favourite colour, you may find yourself reading a lot of articles … about the insidious threat from people who like orange,’ Apple CEO said
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 7:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 10:20pm

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said on Wednesday 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, insisted the iPhone maker was committed to protect users’ data and privacy.

Issues about how data is used and whether 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.

Apple, which says it designs many of its products so it cannot see user data, has largely avoided privacy scandals that have enmeshed 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.

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.”

He said algorithms, a major tool for competitors, were turning harmless preferences into hardened convictions.

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
Tim Cook, Apple CEO

“If green is your favourite colour, you may find yourself reading a lot of articles – or watching a lot of videos – about the insidious threat from people who like orange,” 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.”

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.”

Cook said Apple fully backed a federal privacy law in the US, something Europe has already introduced via its General Data Protection Regulation.

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“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.”