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Tim Cook: Silicon Valley's most successful companies are selling you out

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A new plea for privacy rights from Apple's CEO

Apple CEO Tim Cook has made no secret of his disdain for online services that ask you to trade highly personal data for convenience — a trade that describes most big advertising-supported technology companies. But last night, in some of his strongest comments to date, Cook said the erosion of privacy represents a threat to the American way of life. Cook spoke at a dinner in Washington, DC, hosted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which honored him as a "champion of freedom" for his leadership at Apple.

"Our privacy is being attacked on multiple fronts," Cook said in a speech that he delivered remotely, according to EPIC. "I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be."

tim cook

(Photo courtesy of EPIC)

Cook's comments appeared to be directed at companies including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, which offer advertisers platform for targeting their users with increasing sophistication. Cook also made what sounded like an oblique reference to the new Google Photos, questioning whether Google would ultimately use it for ad targeting. (It currently does not, and Google says it has no plans to.) "You might like these so-called free services, but we don't think they're worth having your email or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose," Cook said. "And we think someday, customers will see this for what it is."

"Someday, customers will see this for what it is."

It's worth noting that Apple has an ad business of its own: iAds, which runs inside iOS apps and on iTunes Radio. The ads enable companies to target customers by cross-referencing their email addresses and phone numbers anonymously against other data obtained by marketers. (It is possible to opt out of iAds personalization.)

But the pointed nature of Cook's comments indicate the way trust and privacy are becoming a battleground for major tech companies as they increasingly encroach on one another's terrain. Google decided to move its Photos product out of Google+ in part because it found people didn't want to store their pictures in a social network, where they might be actually shared. Meanwhile, Apple's reputation is still recovering from the theft of hundreds of nude photos that were stored in iCloud accounts. As tech companies increasingly compete for personal data, the one that customers trust most will have an important advantage.

Cook also used the speech to reiterate his opposition to creating a "back door" for law enforcement that would enable authorities to bypass encryption on user date. "If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it too," he said. Chip Pitts, a human rights attorney and chairman of EPIC's board, said last night's award to Cook marked the first time the organization had honored a business leader. "Recognizing that privacy is related to human rights like identity and nondiscrimination — it was an act of personal courage and values-based leadership," Pitts told The Verge.

Verge Video: How Google solved our photo storage nightmare