Every thing you search for on the Internet, every email you send, and every photo you take is scanned and mined for information by some faceless entity, and it’s not the NSA — it’s Google.
We typically think of Google as a friendly, good-hearted company whose aim is simply to make our lives easier with smart services that know us better than we know ourselves. But all these wonderful, intelligent, free services come at a very high price: our personal data and privacy. Google isn’t just scanning our searches, emails, and photos to make its services smarter, it’s also doing it to sell better ads and make more money. Little by little, we’ve sold our data to a huge corporation, and we don’t even think about it — let alone worry about it — but we should.
Apple CEO Tim Cook laid down the gauntlet during the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (EPIC) Champions of Freedom event in Washington. He took a bold stance in favor of encryption and everyone’s right to privacy on the Internet, declaring it a “fundamental right.”
Although Cook has made earlier statements in the same vein, this time he elevated his rhetoric to denounce other companies (ahem, Google and Facebook) which offer free services in exchange for gobs of lovely user data.
Free services come at a high cost
“Like many of you, we at Apple reject the idea that our customers should have to make tradeoffs between privacy and security,” Cook said in the opening of his speech, as reported by TechCrunch. “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.”
“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.”
He went on to say that Apple’s business is based on selling high-quality products for a clear, monetary value — no strings attached. Cook was quick to contrast the company’s business model with that of unnamed “prominent and successful companies” — by which he very clearly meant Google and Facebook — who “have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information.”
“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 said. “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.”
He reiterated Apple’s approach to its mobile payment app, Apple Pay, which does not collect customer data, monitor purchases, or track customers’ movements to ascertain what they’re likely to buy, so it can serve up targeted ads. Cook has often said that Apple “doesn’t want your data” when talking about the mobile payment service. Most other companies respect users’ boundaries when it comes to credit card information, but as Cook pointed out in his brutal condemnation of companies like Google and Facebook, most other avenues of collecting user data are free game.
“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information,” Cook continued. “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.”
Cook’s not crazy
Although Cook didn’t name names, his statement clearly called out Google’s brand-new Photos app, which offers unlimited free storage of your photos. Of course, Google’s software also scans your pictures to distinguish food pictures, identify faces, and categorize your photos in other ways. The app also tracks your location. All this is done with the expressed purpose of helping users find and sort their photos in innovative ways, and it also allows Google to help users create interesting photo slideshows called “Stories.”
Cook’s statements sound like common sense counsel against something that’s probably bad for us.
However, as Cook and others have pointed out, Google’s scanning of your photos could also be used to serve you more targeted ads and determine the things you’re likely to buy. Although looking at photos to send users advertisements for their favorite beer or cheese isn’t exactly the Orwellian nightmare Cook paints, if placed in the wrong hands, Google’s treasure trove of data could be used for malicious purposes.
We may not view the prospect of Google scanning our photos with the same level of dread that we do when we think about the NSA doing the same thing, but the basic action is the same: Someone you don’t know has access to all your photos and is looking at them. Regardless of intent, Cook has a point — It’s creepy.
Add to that, Google’s recent reveal of how its ads have adapted to match the way we use our smartphones, and Cook’s statements start to sound less like frivolous detractions against its main competitor in the mobile space, and more like common sense counsel against something that’s probably bad for us.
Google recently introduced a privacy and security dashboard to help users see what Google tracks. Those who are truly privacy minded can turn off offending features, but most of us will likely check it once out of curiosity, be slightly off put by the sheer amount of data collected (especially when you see Google Maps sketching out your daily commute with incredible accuracy), and then shrug and turn away. We accept that we have to sacrifice some of our privacy for Google’s services to work, and we’re so grateful that Google Search, Maps, Photos, and Gmail exist that we don’t think twice about it.
Are we wrong to do so? Maybe.
However, in Cook’s mind the answer is an indisputable yes. And he doesn’t think we should stop at defending our privacy by opting out of services that mine our data.
Encryption without back doors is key
During his speech, Cook also took a direct shot at the federal government, declaring that encryption is essential.
“There’s another attack on our civil liberties that we see heating up every day — it’s the battle over encryption,” Cook said. “Some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data.”
“If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too.”
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have repeatedly advised tech companies like Google and Apple against adding encryption to their services and products, on the grounds that encryption limits their ability to track criminals and terrorists. Most tech companies have thumbed their noses at the government and added encryption anyway.
“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,” Cook said. “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.”
Cook also dismissed claims that Apple has a dedicated backdoor in its services for the government to use in case of emergencies.
“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,” he said. “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.”
To see the truth in that statement, one need look no further than the long line of hacks in which customers’ credit card info has been stolen, not to mention the infamous Sony hack. In the area of encryption, Apple, Google, Facebook, and other tech companies appear more or less united. However, Cook’s forceful statements take the argument to a whole new level. Previously, Cook has tempered his statements — but not this time.
“We shouldn’t ask our customers to make a tradeoff between privacy and security. We need to offer them the best of both,” Cook concluded. “Ultimately, protecting someone else’s data protects all of us.”
Regardless what you think of Apple, that’s something everyone can agree with.