The chief executive of one of the biggest tech companies in the world has warned consumers that their personal information is being used against them “with military efficiency” by companies looking to turn a profit.
In an impassioned speech about digital privacy at an international data protection conference, Apple chief executive Tim Cook described the industrialisation of data as a billion-dollar industry with the power to “deepen divisions, incite violence” and “undermine our shared sense of what is true”.
“Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency,” he said.
“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.”
Mr Cook said the kind of information people often disregard as harmless on its own could be built up into an digital profile that “lets companies know you better than you may know yourself”.
“We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences; this is surveillance,” he said.
“And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them. This should make us very uncomfortable. It should unsettle us.”
Mr Cook praised the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force this year and increases penalties for breaching people’s online privacy, as a step in the right direction for data privacy.
He called on the US to introduce similar laws that would put the onus on tech companies to protect their consumers’ rights to digital privacy, and vowed that Apple would support a federal law to that effect.
“Users should always know what data is being collected and what it is being collected for,” he said.
“This is the only way to empower users to decide what collection is legitimate and what isn’t. Anything less is a sham.”
While Australia’s privacy act is closer to the new EU data protection laws than those existing in the US, there is no enforceable constitutional right to privacy.
Facebook, Google bosses weigh in
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg responded by defending his company’s ad-based business model, arguing users were aware of a trade-off for free services.
“Instead of charging people, we charge advertisers to show ads. People consistently tell us that they want a free service and that if they are going to see ads to get it, then they want those ads to be relevant,” he said.
Mr Zuckerberg added that Facebook was investing heavily in both security and privacy even as this impacts on its profitability.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai welcomed the global focus on privacy, saying that the company was doing its part by taking measures to allow users more control over their data.
“User trust is the foundation for everything we do, and privacy and security are fundamental tenets of that,” he said by video message.
“We’ve been working for years to provide more transparency and control for our users, and we appreciate the input and partnership from data protection authorities.”