Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to flag trust and humanity in major privacy speech

Apple CEO Tim Cook is expected to endorse the idea of a “comprehensive federal privacy law” for the U.S. in a keynote speech tomorrow.

He will also back Europe’s approach to data protection and privacy — recently cemented in place via the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — essentially saying technology does not have to be creepy to be innovative. Nor should the tech itself be a cause of harm.

Cook will be addressing the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC), which is being held in Brussels this year to coincide with the introduction of GDPR.

Europe’s updated privacy framework came into timely force, this May, weeks after the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal had erupted into a major global scandal — further raising the profile of data protection as a consumer need, and convincing governments to prioritize an oft overlooked area.

By contrast US lawmakers have found themselves on the back foot, increasingly viewed as laggards on the issue vs Europe.

California also recently passed a state-wide data protection law. So federal regulators now have clear impetus to draw up domestic privacy rules. Though it remains to be seen whether they will stand up to platform power at home and hold their own on the world stage. Or merely close down the risk of a state-by-state data protection patchwork springing up to create new compliance headaches for business.

Silicon Valley’s response to the prospect of an overarching US privacy law has been predictably disingenuous — with attempts to reframe the issue under broadbrush, malleable concepts like ‘control’ or ‘accountability’; and lobbying efforts aimed at steering regulators away from drafting rules anywhere near as robust as GDPR.

The usual soundbites are being trotted out about the need to ‘protect innovation‘ (aka the data-fuelled business models such companies use as revenue engines).

Cook’s intervention is a reminder that not every tech giant is hostile to privacy. And privacy does not have to be systematically violated for value to be derived from data.

For example, Apple has invested in pro-privacy technologies that enable it to leverage data-based insights while protecting individual privacy, such as its use of differential privacy to pull aggregate patterns of behaviour across its user-base; rather than pursuing a per-person profiling approach, as adtech giants Google and Facebook do, riding roughshod over individual privacy in the process.

In his speech to the audience of international privacy commissioners, Cook is expected to thank global regulators for the work they do, and reiterate that Apple views privacy as a “fundamental human right” — a position which aligns the company with the EU’s ethics-based perspective on big data.

He will also compliment GDPR, specifically — dubbing it an example of how “good policy and political will can come together to protect the rights of us all” — and focus on ethical underpinnings, saying that at Apple “we are optimistic about technology’s awesome potential for good. But we know that it won’t happen on its own. Every day, we work to infuse the devices we make with the humanity that makes us.”

In another remark, Cook will say: “We will never achieve technology’s true potential without the full faith and confidence of the people who use it” — which looks like a not-so-coded attack on big tech’s trust crisis, which continues to be fuelled by data breach after data breach, every passing week.

As we wrote previously, Apple’s signalling to US lawmakers on privacy is clear. 

In the speech, Cook will also seek to push the conversation beyond talk of compliance and defence of rights — by laying out a broad, positive vision for technology and privacy in the 21st century. 

He is expected to tell delegates “we need to keep making progress — now more than ever” on “humanity’s greatest common project”, citing challenges such as climate change, fighting disease, and education and economy inclusion.

Cook is the first tech CEO to give the keynote speech at the ICDPPC, accepting an invitation from the conference organizers to do so.

He is also perhaps the only big tech CEO who could comfortably take to such a stage in person.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai will also be heard at the conference, but remotely, via pre-recorded video messages. The companies are sending policy staffers to answer delegates’ questions in Q&A sessions.