Apple’s Tim Cook warns of threat from growing “data industrial complex”

Apple’s Tim Cook was the first CEO of a private company to give the keynote speech at the annual International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC) in Brussels. Cook touched on a lot of topics, from AI to GDPR to privacy. But his most stark remarks were about what he sees as the growing threat from the “data industrial complex”—that is, the trading of our digital data between a few major players in the tech industry, whose business models are increasingly hostile to privacy, TechCrunch reports. Cook said:

“Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponized against us with military efficiency. These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold. Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm. We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance.”

Cook’s use of the phrase “data industrial complex” harkens back to the warning President Dwight D. Eisenhower made to the nation in 1961 about the growing threat of the military-industrial complex.

Besides warning of the threat from the growing data industrial complex, Cook also remarked on the following subjects.

Artificial intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence is one area I think a lot about. At its core this technology promises to learn from people individually to benefit us all. But advancing AI by collecting huge personal profiles is laziness, not efficiency. For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound. We can achieve both great artificial intelligence and great privacy standards. It is not only a possibility — it is a responsibility.”

On Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations:

“We should celebrate the transformative work of the European institutions tasked with the successful implementation of the GDPR. We also celebrate the new steps taken, not only here in Europe but around the world — in Singapore, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand. In many more nations regulators are asking tough questions — and crafting effective reform. It is time for the rest of the world, including my home country, to follow your lead.”

On social media platforms dividing people:

“We see vividly, painfully how technology can harm, rather than help. [The platforms can] magnify our worst human tendencies… deepen divisions, incite violence and even undermine our shared sense or what is true or false. This crisis is real. Those of us who believe in technology’s potential for good must not shrink from this moment.”

On increasing privacy regulations:

“They may say to you our companies can never achieve technology’s true potential if there were strengthened privacy regulations. But this notion isn’t just wrong, it is destructive — technology’s potential is and always must be rooted in the faith people have in it. In the optimism and the creativity that stirs the hearts of individuals. In its promise and capacity to make the world a better place. It’s time to face facts. We will never achieve technology’s true potential without the full faith and confidence of the people who use it.”

You can watch Cook’s full speech below.

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