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