Apple boss Tim Cook says people's data is being 'weaponised with military efficiency' by tech companies

Data can be used to 'magnify our worst human tendencies', CEO warns

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 24 October 2018 11:59 BST
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote during the European Union's privacy conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote during the European Union's privacy conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

Apple boss Tim Cook says that people's personal data is being "weaponised with military efficiency" by companies who are using it to make profit for themselves.

Mr Cook and the rest of Apple have repeatedly argued that some parts of the technology industry are abusing the trust of its users by taking intimate data from them and using it to make money. But the latest comments at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners are perhaps the strongest attack on those firms yet.

Mr Cook said that there should be a federal law in the US that stops data being abused, promoted Apple's own commitment to privacy, and praised the new GDPR rules that are meant to protect data in Europe.

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," Mr Cook told a packed audience of privacy regulators, corporate executives and other participants.

He cited former U.S. 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.

"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," Mr 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.

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.

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"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 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."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will share their views via video messages later in the day.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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