Privacy — or the lack of it — is one of the biggest hot-button issues in the tech industry today. Ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first exposed the extent of the agency’s electronic surveillance programs in 2013, tech companies such as Apple have been dealing with the fallout. While civil libertarians criticize tech companies for failing to protect customers’ private data from intrusive government snooping, law enforcement officials complain that tech companies are hindering surveillance efforts aimed at eliminating terrorism. Further complicating the issue is the fact that many of these tech companies are hamstrung by secret gag orders from the government that limit what they can publicly say about these secret surveillance programs.
Although a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post suggested that the NSA was extracting customers’ private data directly from Apple’s servers via a so-called “backdoor,” the company has repeatedly denied those claims. “[W]e have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services,” wrote Apple CEO Tim Cook in a statement published on the company’s website. “We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”
In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Cook reaffirmed Apple’s commitment to its customers’ privacy. “None of us should accept that the government or a company or anybody should have access to all of our private information,” Cook told The Telegraph. “This is a basic human right. We all have a right to privacy. We shouldn’t give it up. We shouldn’t give in to scare-mongering or to people who fundamentally don’t understand the details.”
Cook’s statement stands in stark contrast to the comments that some law enforcement officials made after Apple implemented default encryption settings in its mobile operating system last year. As explained on Apple’s website, the encryption means that “Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”
As reported by Huffington Post, this led FBI Director James Comey to state that, “There will come a day — well it comes every day in this business — when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper’s or a terrorist or a criminal’s device. I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well how come you can’t save this kid,’ ‘how come you can’t do this thing.’”
Cook pointed out the false dichotomy of Comey’s argument by noting that people involved in illegal activity will likely be using encryption regardless of whether it is made a default option. “Terrorists will encrypt,” Cook told The Telegraph. “They know what to do. If we don’t encrypt, the people we affect [by cracking down on privacy] are the good people. They are the 99.999pc of people who are good,” he noted.
Interestingly, Cook claimed that even law enforcement officials that present privacy and security as mutually exclusive options do not really believe this argument. “If they are really honest, they know that withholding encryption will penalise good people, not put a barrier up for bad people,” said Cook. “There is no trade-off. It fundamentally doesn’t work. There has to be other solutions.”
Government’s that violate people’s privacy in the name of fighting terrorism weren’t the only targets of Cook’s criticism. The Apple CEO also took aim at companies that monetize consumers’ information. “We don’t make money selling your information to somebody else,” Cook told The Telegraph. “We don’t think you want that. We don’t want to do that. It’s not in our values system to do that. Could we make a lot of money doing that? Of course. But life isn’t about money, life is about doing the right thing. This has been a core value of our company for a long time.”
While Cook declined to name specific companies, he was likely referring to companies such as Google, which derives the vast majority of its revenue from targeted advertising that is based on data it gleans from users’ email and browsing histories. According to Google’s earnings report, the company made over $66 billion in total revenues last year. Over $59 billion of that revenue came from advertising.
On the other hand, Google was offering transparency reports and information on government data requests long before most other tech companies, including Apple, according to digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). As noted by the EFF, Apple lagged most other tech companies on addressing privacy concerns until recently. Apple published its first transparency report in November 2013.
In any case, users will likely be reassured to hear that Apple is taking a firm stance on consumers’ right to privacy, especially as the company prepares to launch the Apple Watch. As “its most personal device ever,” the Watch has the potential to be a goldmine of personal information for interested parties. Besides collecting new types of personal information — like a user’s daily exercise regimen and current heart rate — the Watch will also handle financial transactions via Apple Pay. So as mobile devices become increasingly sophisticated repositories of personal data, it’s good to know that Apple is planting its flag squarely on the side of privacy and security.
Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS