Protect Customer Data at All Costs, Apple’s CEO Demands

“Protect customer data at all costs” is the message Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Cook is considered a champion of the issue.

As the website FierceCIO.com reported, “IT leaders have been barraged in recent weeks with debates over data encryption, security and privacy and what their role should be in controlling it all. According to … Cook, it should be minimal.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center website said Cook gave an impassioned speech. He said the erosion of privacy represents a threat to the American way of life. “We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demands it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it,” Cook said in remarks as part of the center’s awards dinner.

Cook was honored for his corporate leadership on the issue. EPIC, which is how the center modestly refers to itself, established the award in 2004 to recognize individuals and organizations that have helped safeguard the right of privacy, promote open government and protect democratic values with courage and integrity, according to its website. Past winners include Edward Snowden, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and the Wall Street Journal for its reporting.

Information Week provided pretty in-depth coverage of Cook’s remarks. It reported in addition to leveling charges at companies who use their users’ data for profit — he didn’t name names, but Google, Facebook, and Twitter would all fit into that business model — Cook “blasted Washington politicians and claimed taking away encryption would have a ‘chilling effect’ on Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

With regards to encryption, Cook said during his remarks some elected officials in Washington want to attach civil liberties by undermining the public’s ability to encrypt their personal data. “We think this is incredibly dangerous,” Cook said. “We’ve been offering encryption tools in our products for years, and we’re going to stay on that path. We think it’s a critical feature for our customers who want to keep their data secure.”

Cook also said, according to Information Week, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. 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.”

The Apple CEO tackled the issue head on in a letter to Apple users last September. It is printed on a privacy page on the Apple website. In the letter, Cook said, “We believe in telling you up front exactly what’s going to happen to your personal information and asking for your permission before you share it with us. And if you change your mind later, we make it easy to stop sharing with us. Every Apple product is designed around those principles. When we do ask to use your data, it’s to provide you with a better user experience.”

He added, “A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.”

InformationWeek had this to add about Apple’s security policies. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Apple’s evolving view on privacy is its shift toward a zero-knowledge posture, a position until now favored only by the most the most forward-thinking security companies, the article said.

Apple touts how its FaceTime software stores no customer data, so it can never be seized by the government through warrants. InformationWeek contradicted that somewhat. It reported, “As the security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski points out in a response to Cook’s letter, Apple is taking a brave and welcome stance in defense of privacy, but that doesn’t mean government authorities can’t access an Apple customer’s data anyway.” The article said Apple’s decision to allow users to access files and apps while a mobile device is locked means that videos, images, media files, and third-party application data can still be accessed using forensic tools if a trusted paired device (a Mac running iTunes for synchronization and backup) is available.

Where do you stand on Cook’s beliefs? Take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping, About.com, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.