Tech Tent: Tim Cook’s privacy crusade

Tim Cook Image copyright Getty Images

It's not unusual for the technology industry to be accused of playing fast and loose with user privacy, collecting data on a vast scale and needing to be reined in by new laws.

What is startling is when that accusation comes from the leader of the world's most valuable technology company.

On Tech Tent this week we ask just what Tim Cook's diatribe says about the debate on data.

It is rare for Apple's chief executive to speak in public about anything other than the virtues of its latest products.

But at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels this week, he painted a dystopian picture of his industry.

He described what he called a data industrial complex, with our data scooped up, traded and used to shape what we saw online.

"Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency," he told his audience of regulators.

"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 praised Europe's tough new privacy law the GDPR and called for the United States to bring in something similar.

Now given how much irritation and hostility towards GDPR there was from American tech companies in the run-up to its implementation, this feels like a remarkable turnaround. Even more remarkably, the message about the merits of regulation was backed by Mark Zuckerberg.

In a video message to the same conference, he said Facebook shared the values behind GDPR.

Mind you, he insisted that users were aware of the trade-off between a free service and advertisements, and what that involved in terms of their data.

"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.

China contradiction?

Others made the point that it is easy for Tim Cook to take a sanctimonious line on privacy, when Apple's business model depends on selling expensive hardware rather than collecting vast amounts of data to use in targeting advertising.

Alex Stamos, who's just stepped down as Facebook's Chief Technology Officer, was quick to point out that Apple doesn't give much privacy to Chinese iPhone users who are barred from installing a VPN to get round censorship.

He said on Twitter that the media had given Tim Cook an easy ride.

While Facebook and Apple may bicker about their different business models, both seem to have recognised that new GDPR-style regulation is inevitable.

The irony is that there is one place where they don't seem so keen on that idea - the White House.

The Trump administration's Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross warned in May that GDPR could harm transatlantic trade.

Since then, there have been some vague discussions of a new US privacy law, but in a more diluted form than its European equivalent.

In his Brussels speech, Tim Cook warned that there would be opposition to the kind of strict regulation he favours: "Some oppose any form of privacy legislation. Others will endorse reform in public, and then resist and undermine it behind closed doors."

But Apple's boss says technology will not achieve its true potential unless it has the full faith and confidence of the people who use it. Prepare for a long battle over just how much regulation is needed to win back that trust.

Also in this week's programme:

  • In a week when Uber unveiled a plan to persuade its London drivers to switch to electric vehicles, we look at how cities will need a lot more charging infrastructure if the electric revolution is to happen.
  • And we find out about the use and abuse of WhatsApp in Brazil's election campaign.

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