Apple CEO Tim Cook has called for new digital privacy laws in the United States, warning that the collection of huge amounts of personal data by companies is harming society.
Speaking at a privacy conference in Brussels, Cook gave an impassioned and forceful speech. He reiterated familiar talking points like Apple’s commitment to privacy (and, by implication, its rivals lack of commitment) while spelling out public concerns in recent years regarding data collection, surveillance, and manipulation.
Cook said that modern technology has led to the creation of a “data-industrial complex” in which private and everyday information is “weaponized against us with military efficiency.” He added that this mechanism doesn’t just affect individuals, but whole societies.
“Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” said Cook. “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. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy.” You can watch the full speech below:
Cook did not mention triggers for this crisis, but his comments clearly reference recent events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users was harvested by a consulting firm with the aim of swaying users’ political views. Similarly, while Cook never mentioned by name tech companies like Facebook and Google, it’s clear that these were targets in his criticism of indiscriminate data collection.
Cook has long advocated for strong standards in data privacy, but is now calling for federal regulation too. Alastair MacTaggart, a US privacy campaigner who spearheaded a landmark data privacy law in California said this was a “180-degree turn” for tech companies. “A year ago, they were pushing for self-regulation. But now, they want federal rules, but ones that are as weak as possible,” MacTaggart told Politico.
In his speech in Brussels, attended by policy experts and European Union lawmakers, Cook praised the EU’s “successful implementation” of its new data privacy law, GDPR. This forces companies collecting user information to use the highest possible privacy safeguards by default. It also gives the EU the ability to fine companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue if they misuse user data.
Said Cook: “It is time for the rest of the world [...] to follow your lead. We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.” He then went on to outline four key rights that should be enshrined in such legislation: the right to have personal data minimized; the right for users to know what data is collected on them; the right to access that data; and the right for that data to be kept securely.
He also preempted a common criticism in the US that such regulation is a barrier to innovation. “This notion isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive,” said the Apple chief. “Technology’s potential is and always must be rooted in the faith people have in it.”