Used and abused

Ap­ple’s CEO warns that the ex­ploita­tion of per­sonal data has reached cri­sis level and it’s time to fight back

Financial Mail - - PATTERN RECOGNITION - @shap­shak

Per­haps be­cause it was Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook sound­ing the alarm about how our per­sonal data “is be­ing weaponised against us with mil­i­tary ef­fi­ciency” that the warn­ing was all the more omi­nous.

Cook, the long­time Ap­ple in­sider who took over from Steve Jobs, shares his pre­de­ces­sor’s con­cern for pri­vacy, which is rare in a world of tech com­pa­nies that make money from their users. Face­book, Google, Youtube and to a lesser ex­tent Twit­ter ex­ploit users’ data to sell ad­ver­tis­ers ac­cess to them. In­stead of buy­ing a prod­uct (a phone or a soft­ware pro­gram) peo­ple are buy­ing a ser­vice and pay­ing for it with their per­sonal data.

We know this from Face­book’s on­go­ing at­tempts to shore up its amor­phous pri­vacy stan­dards and the aban­don with which firms like Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica could ex­ploit them.

But Cook is the king of big tech, even if there are still de­bates about how in­no­va­tive Ap­ple is un­der him.

At a data pri­vacy con­fer­ence in Brus­sels, head­quar­ters of the EU — which has in­tro­duced bril­liant user­pro­tect­ing data leg­is­la­tion with sig­nif­i­cant pun­ish­ments for trans­gres­sors — Cook warned that ad­ver­tis­ing-driven busi­ness mod­els have “ex­ploded into a data in­dus­trial com­plex”.

Though he didn’t name Face­book or Google, his tar­get is clear. “Ev­ery day, bil­lions of dol­lars change hands and count­less de­ci­sions are made on the ba­sis of our likes and dis­likes, our friends and fam­i­lies, our re­la­tion­ships and con­ver­sa­tions, our wishes and fears, our hopes and dreams,” he said. “These scraps of data, each one harm­less enough on its own, are care­fully as­sem­bled, syn­the­sised, traded and sold.” He called for a “com­pre­hen­sive fed­eral pri­vacy law” in the US.

This data isn’t just used for ad­ver­tis­ing; Cook re­minded ev­ery­one how some sites — Youtube and Face­book spring to mind — try to keep your at­ten­tion (and ad-view­ing eye­balls) by show­ing you pro­gres­sively con­tro­ver­sial ma­te­rial. “Your pro­file is then run through al­go­rithms that can serve up in­creas­ingly ex­treme con­tent, pound­ing our harm­less pref­er­ences into hard­ened con­vic­tions.”

The “harm­ful, even deadly, ef­fects of these nar­rowed world views” can’t be sugar-coated. “This is surveil­lance. And these stock­piles of per­sonal data serve only to en­rich the com­pa­nies that col­lect them.”

Jobs ad­mon­ished Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg at a 2010 con­fer­ence and Cook wrote an open let­ter to Google in 2014 say­ing: “When an on­line ser­vice is free, you’re not the cus­tomer. You’re the prod­uct.”

Ap­ple, and for that mat­ter

Mi­crosoft, make their money sell­ing prod­ucts and not ad­ver­tis­ing.

Zucker­berg, in re­sponse to Cook’s “ex­tremely glib” com­ments, said: “If you want to build a ser­vice which is not just serv­ing rich peo­ple, then you need to have some­thing peo­ple can af­ford.”

Cook’s ral­ly­ing cry shouldn’t be ig­nored: “This cri­sis is real. It is not imag­ined, or ex­ag­ger­ated, or crazy. And those of us who be­lieve in tech­nol­ogy’s po­ten­tial for good must not shrink from this mo­ment.” Our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will thank ev­ery­one who takes a stand against this new “data in­dus­trial com­plex”.

Face­book, Google, Youtube and to a lesser ex­tent Twit­ter ex­ploit users’ data to sell ad­ver­tis­ers ac­cess to them

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