Yesterday evening, Apple CEO Tim Cook was honored for ‘corporate leadership’ during EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in Washington. Cook spoke remotely to the assembled audience on guarding customer privacy, ensuring security and protecting their right to encryption.
“Like many of you, we at Apple reject the idea that our customers should have to make tradeoffs between privacy and security,” Cook opened. “We can, and we must provide both in equal measure. We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demand it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it.”
This marked the first time that EPIC, a nonprofit research center in Washington focused on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues, has given the honor to a person from the business world. The hosts of the event included cryptographer Bruce Schneier, EPIC president Marc Rotenberg, Lobbyist Hilary Rosen and Stanford Lecturer in Law Chip Pitts.
Cook was characteristically passionate about all three topics. A theme that has persisted following his appearance on Charlie Rose late last year to define how Apple handled encryption, his public letter on Apple’s new security page in the wake of the celebrity nude hacking incidents and his speech earlier this year at President Obama’s Summit on Cybersecurity at Stanford — an event which was notably not attended by other Silicon Valley CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.
Cook lost no time in directing comments at companies (obviously, though not explicitly) like Facebook and Google, which rely on advertising to users based on the data they collect from them for a portion, if not a majority, of their income.
“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,” said Cook. “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.”
Cook went on to state, as he has before when talking about products like Apple Pay, that Apple ‘doesn’t want your data.’
They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. Tim Cook
“We don’t think you should ever have to trade it for a service you think is free but actually comes at a very high cost. This is especially true now that we’re storing data about our health, our finances and our homes on our devices,” Cook went on, getting even more explicit when talking about user privacy.
“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”
That, in case you missed it, is an epic subtweet of Google’s Photos product, which was just rolled out at I/O.The fact that Photos is free of charge, and Apple’s products are not likely spurred the talk about “very high costs.”
That product uploads all of your photos, with unlimited storage, to Google’s cloud, organizing, improving and giving you access to a deep history of your images. By many accounts, Photos is a fantastic product, but even early on people have begun to point out the obvious tradeoff that you’re making when you sign up.
Cook then switched gears to talk about encryption — directly addressing the efforts by policy makers to force Apple to offer a ‘master key’ that would allow government agencies access to consumer devices.
“There’s another attack on our civil liberties that we see heating up every day — it’s the battle over encryption. Some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data,” said Cook.
“We think this is incredibly dangerous. We’ve been offering encryption tools in our products for years, and we’re going to stay on that path. We think it’s a critical feature for our customers who want to keep their data secure. For years we’ve offered encryption services like iMessage and FaceTime because we believe the contents of your text messages and your video chats is none of our business.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been waging a war on “pervasive encryption,” painting it as an enabler of terrorism. Every security researcher and logical human being on the planet understands that this is ridiculous. And Cook is one of them.
“If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too. Criminals are using every technology tool at their disposal to hack into people’s accounts. If they know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it,” Cook continued.
“Removing encryption tools from our products altogether, as some in Washington would like us to do, would only hurt law-abiding citizens who rely on us to protect their data. The bad guys will still encrypt; it’s easy to do and readily available.”
Cook then took it a step further, noting that weakening encryption could have a ‘chilling effect’ on our First Amendment rights.
The bad guys will still encrypt; it’s easy to do and readily available. Tim Cook
“Now, we have a deep respect for law enforcement, and we work together with them in many areas, but on this issue we disagree. So let me be crystal clear — weakening encryption, or taking it away, harms good people that are using it for the right reasons. And ultimately, I believe it has a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights and undermines our country’s founding principles.”
Cook said that Apple designs its products to “collect the minimum amount of data necessary to create great experiences.”
It could be argued that it doesn’t gather enough, as Google Now, Google on Tap and other holistic offerings have the potential to give users much more lateral movement and ‘delight’ moments on Android specifically due to how much data Google gathers on its users. And Google has its own safeguards in place including anonymizing data (stripping out personal information). But that is the fundamental tradeoff that Apple is willing to make, says Cook.
“We don’t just grab everything, so we’re not the richest target for those who want access to that kind of data. And for encryption — well we’re continuing to do the right thing, and we are moving forward. In an era where our information is digital, portable and sought-after more than ever, we want to build products that keep people’s information safe.”
Cook then laid out an Abraham Lincoln quote (which I vetted, it’s true): “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
“We shouldn’t ask our customers to make a tradeoff between privacy and security. We need to offer them the best of both,” Cook wrapped up. “Ultimately, protecting someone else’s data protects all of us.”
Sales And Truth
It’s a masterful stroke of speechifying. As I’ve mentioned before, by taking this stance (which I do not believe to be disingenuous, their profit centers support it), Apple has put all other cloud companies in the unfortunate position of digging themselves out of a moral communications hole to prove their altruism when it comes to user data.
I’m not saying that Cook is correct in brutalizing the motives of companies like Google or Facebook — but it does craft a strong portrait — because Apple is safer and ‘not interested’ in your data casts a cloud (ahem) of doubt over pretty much every other company in its league.
I’m honestly surprised that it took this long for Apple to begin leveraging this particular ‘fine print’ point of how it does business. Part of it can be chalked up to its overall reluctance to be transparent about security issues — which it has handily reversed itself on over the past nine months. Still no public bug bounty, though, which would be sweet.
Apple is a corporation that makes money off of its customers. In that, it’s identical to any other tech giant and should be regarded with a healthy critical eye and skepticism, period. Though Apple has achieved massive scale, there is always the threat that an alternate model like Facebook’s or Google’s will undermine their profit centers.
The way in which it makes its money, then, is Apple’s new north star sales tool. And, like all the best marketing, it’s possible that it’s based in a fundamental truth: we could all be selling our ‘selves’ for a sale price.