“We at Apple believe that privacy is a fundamental human right,” Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, said in a privacy-conference keynote last year in Brussels. “But we also recognize that not everyone sees things as we do.” Cook was making an impassioned plea to end the technology industry’s collection and sale of user data. “This is surveillance,” he continued. “And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them.” Cook called for a comprehensive U.S. data-privacy law focused on minimizing data collection, securing that data, and informing users about its nature and use.
The speech is worth revisiting in light of an emerging fight between Apple and Facebook. Earlier this week, TechCrunch reported that Facebook had been paying people, including teens 13 to 17 years old, to install a “research” app that extracted huge volumes of personal data from their iPhones—direct messages, photos, emails, and more. Facebook uses this information partly to improve its data profiles for advertisement, but also as a business-intelligence tool to help paint a picture of competitor behavior.
After the story broke, Facebook said it would shut down the iOS version of the program. That wasn’t enough for Apple, which canceled Facebook’s ability to distribute custom iPhone apps for internal use by Facebook employees. That might look like a severe punishment that will send a strong message to Facebook, and to other companies. But it’s mostly a slap on the wrist. It gives Apple moral cover while doing little to change the data economy the company claims to oppose.