Business cannot turn a blind eye to data exploitation

The tech industry can no longer turn a blind eye to violations of consumer privacy in pursuit of profit, says Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Speaking yesterday (28 January) during the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection 2021 Conference, Cook urged business to renounce its obsession with hoarding customer data and commit to privacy-centric innovation.

“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it. We’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom,” he said.

“If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform. We should not look away from the bigger picture. In a moment of rapid disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement. The longer the better and we can go on collecting as much data as possible.”

Cook referred to the forthcoming rollout of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature as a “microcosm of the debate” that has been raging for years. Under ATT, every app will have to ask the user up front if it is ok to share their Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) data with third parties, rather than the previous opt-out functionality. Arriving in early spring, the feature will be enabled by default on the Apple IoS 14 operating system.

Technology does not need vast troves of personal data. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it.

Tim Cook, Apple

When ATT comes into full effect users will have a say over how their data is handled, said Cook, which is important as Apple estimates the apps consumers use every day contain an average of six trackers. Such tech is then used to follow users across apps, watching and recording their behaviour.

“Right now users may not know whether the apps they use to pass the time, check in with their friends or find a place to eat may in fact be passing on information about the photos they have taken, the people in their contact list, or location data that reflects where they eat, sleep or pray,” Cook explained.

“It seems no piece of information is too private or too personal to be surveiled, monetised and aggregated into a 360-degree view of your life. The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer, you are the product.”

The Apple CEO hailed the introduction of GDPR as an important foundation for privacy rights around the world and called for comprehensive privacy laws not only in the US, but also international agreements to enshrine the principles of data security.

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Cook also alluded to the violence and division stirred up on social media during the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January, calling out the “purveyors of fake news” and “peddlers of division”. He asked whether the future will be focused on innovations that make our lives better, or whether the focus will be on creating tools that compound our fears and aggregate extremism to serve “invasively targeted” ads.

“What are the consequences of prioritising conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of the high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating, but rewarding content that undermines public trust in lifesaving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more?” he asked.

“It is a long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cost of polarisation, of lost trust and yes, of violence. A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.”

While he admitted that the company will no doubt make mistakes along the way, Cook ended by saying that Apple believes technology made with people’s wellbeing in mind “is too valuable a tool to abandon”.

It has been a big week for the tech giant, which on Wednesday reported a record first quarter of its current financial year, achieving a highest-ever revenue of $111.4bn (£81.7bn).

The figure, for the fiscal quarter ending on 26 December, represents a 21% increase on the same period last year, with international sales accounting for 64% of Apple’s revenue.

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