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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
Contributor

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.

10 Comments
  • Privacy start at home. When I see people using a HomePod and everyone can ask read my last messages ... very sad talking about privacy
  • One could argue that Apple doesn't care about privacy as much as they say. Privacy means they don't care what I do as long as it's not illegal. Yet, they block apps that they don't like. Look how long it took before we got 3rd party keyboards (they could EASILY block all web access to the keyboard so it's not a privacy issue). They even removed things with the 1860's southern flag (not sure if you gusy let me say that here) when that was all the rage, but they allowed the 1940's WWII related flag (I can't say that Reich word here). Privacy would be once someone is 18+, allow them to do whatever they want as long as it's legal. They allow apps that allow people to espouse hate of one group, but not another (Mastadon vs Gab).
  • One could argue but one would sound ridiculous.
    You are mixing up Privacy and Freedom... and third party keyboards?
    Also, last time you cleaned up your house, did you forget maybe something in a corner under a rug? Next time around you'll get to it...
    It's an ongoing process, like cleaning up the Appstore, etc. and Apple is using criterias that you may not understand and may disagree with but they are already doing more than, let's say, Facebook, maybe Twitter and most likely more than Google and Samsung. MS I am not sure, that remains to be seen.
    Bottom line, if you're not happy, make your money speak and stop buying Apple products.
  • Timmy the hypocrite is at it once again and his ever loyal lapdog Rene is faithfully pushing the narrative I see. It's cute to see Tim & Rene talk tough about privacy and defame & make sly insinuations at Google yet are at a loss to explain the following: https://9to5mac.com/2018/09/28/google-paying-apple-9-billion-default-sea... If Tim truly walked the bs he talks then he wouldn't demand kickbacks from a company he regularly defames but then again I expect nothing less from the snake he is.
  • Wow! A Snake? You are the one spitting all the venom. 1. What does this even has to do with the subject? How is Google getting your private data from being the search engine in iOS? I am expecting an expert report, not a Business insider report.
    2. The article you linked to is based on a Business Insider report; you need something more solid here. DOA.
  • Are you really that obtuse? See if you can follow along here. Tim Cook boasts about Apple's so-called commitment to privacy. Tim Cook repeatedly slams Google for "Privacy violations". Tim Cook happily takes 9 billion from the company he slanders regularly and you don't see the connection?
    So BI is not credible enough for you? lol. Ok. Let's see how you feel about this: http://fortune.com/2018/09/29/google-apple-safari-search-engine/
  • Indeed. I don't think you're the only on that sees it that way either.. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-09-28/apple-looks-down-on-a...
  • Ignore the anti-Apple trolls: Apple should be praised for protecting our privacy. But, just for the record, Mr. Cook, there is—and never has been—any such thing as a “free market.” All markets are regulated. What’s important is: by whom and for whose benefit?
  • If this ***** would focus on the business instead of social issues maybe the stock wouldn’t have tanked over the past few weeks. I don’t see the necessity of a CEO advertising his sexuality. Spend some time making your products a little more innovative instead. I’m surprised the public took this long to figure out the ‘s’ iterations of the iPhone just aren’t with the money or the bother. It seems like he’s dedicated to turning Apple into a has-been tech company like IBM. Way to go Timmy.
  • Your editor decided to take out the word I d I o t and replace it with asterisks which made it look worse.