Tim Cook: Privacy is Apple's culture

Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, has just completed an interview with Vice News. It focused, not surprisingly, on privacy. Under Cook, Apple has taken its long-standing belief about personal privacy and pushed it to the forefront as a primary product and customer requirement and feature.

Speaking with Vice's Elle Reeve, Cook touched on privacy in general, saying it is one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

Cook isn't overstating that. Our phones are already external cybernetics and storage for our brains. They contain and preserve our most intimate thoughts and memories. It's naive to think there won't be a future where silicon-based storage becomes indistinguishable from carbon-based storage, and people who now want access to the former will also want access to the latter.

While Cook says he's free-market rather than regulation, he recognizes that, when it comes to privacy and the various abuses thereof we've seen of late, self- and market regulation have failed and we may need some form of government intervention.

Personally, I think it's impossible to look at the ongoing controversies surrounding Facebook in particular, and in some cases Google and Amazon as well, and not think something has to be done. The "market" has decided paying for commodity services with invaluable data is a good and fine deal. But the "market" has always been willing to mortgage our long-term and future prosperity for our short-term and present convenience.

We learned the hard way with security in the age of Windows XP. Now we're learning an even harder way with privacy in the age of massive internet companies. The only difference is, back then, Microsoft was trying to fight the malware, not make it.

On the topic of Apple product design, Cook reiterated that privacy is integral to the design process. Apple doesn't just think of new things to make, it deliberately makes sure those things are built with privacy and anonymity from the start and throughout the process.

I've heard about some of Apple's privacy team's work in the past, most recently with Face ID. It's safe to say nothing goes forward if Apple can't ensure privacy every step of the way. Don't collect the data unless you absolutely have to. Anonymize and encrypt the data if you absolutely have to collect it. Delete the data as soon as you possibly can.

Cook also pushed back on the idea that Apple refusing to harvest user data at massive scales dooms its products to lag behind companies that do, like Amazon.

This is a popular narrative and, honestly, I'm not sure if it's true or not. Feeding massive amounts of personal user data into your models certainly sounds like a fast and easy way to train and iterate them.

But that leaves us open to these companies turning around and selling those models to the military to inform military drone strikes or police crowd control.

I don't want my selfies doing that, no matter how cool the app or how free the storage.

So, even if Apple has to take longer and work harder to get services up to the same level as Google or Amazon, it's a far better, more ethical deal for me.

And, Apple devices, Cook contends, are more than personal and powerful enough to do all of that locally.

Reeve did push back on the subject of China, where Apple has been required by law to move customer data to Chinese owned-and-operated servers.

Cook explained that, while Chinese data did have to be stored on Chinese servers, the keys and encryption were still Apple's.

As someone outside the U.S., I've said before that I'm not entirely comfortable with my data being stored on servers inside the U.S. So, I tend to see this as both an important concern regarding China's record on privacy protection, and more than a little naiveté and ethnocentrism about American's record on the same.

Regardless, localizing citizen data is something more and more countries are starting to consider if not demand, so it's something Apple has to be ready and equipped for.

On Alex Jones, who Apple began removing from Apple Podcasts and, eventually, the App Store, Cook didn't want to focus on any specific individual or incident. He did say Apple has always been a curated platform, and believes customers appreciate humans being involved in the process when they have to be.

To me and I think to history, Jones was an outlier. In general, machine learning to surface what's interesting and human oversight to keep it… human… seems like the best and most reasonable approach. Again, AI is neither miraculous nor monstrous. Ethical AI requires work.

Finally, Reeve asked how Cook could guarantee he wouldn't change his mind on privacy or that, one day, Apple wouldn't be run by someone with a very different view on Privacy.

That's when Cook went back to Steve Jobs, who set the gold standard for customer privacy — ask them, ask them again, then ask them again until they ask you to stop asking them — and said he hoped it wasn't just about him or any future leadership, but that it was an inextricable part of Apple's culture.

And that can outlive any leadership or any person.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.