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Tim Cook talks privacy — but gets a pass on China

Programming note: The Interface will be off Thursday and Friday so I can attend the COMO content mode
October 24 · Issue #234 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: The Interface will be off Thursday and Friday so I can attend the COMO content moderation conference and do New York things with my coworkers. I’ll see you back here on Monday.
Our biggest tech companies generally don’t criticize one another in public. But over the past year, there’s been a glaring exception: Apple CEO Tim Cook’s all-out rhetorical assault on Facebook and Google.
On Wednesday Cook delivered some of his strongest criticism yet of advertising-supported tech giants. Here’s James Vincent in The Verge:
Speaking at a privacy conference in Brussels, Cook gave an impassioned and forceful speech. He reiterated familiar talking points like Apple’s commitment to privacy (and, by implication, its rivals lack of commitment) while spelling out public concerns in recent years regarding data collection, surveillance, and manipulation.
Cook said that modern technology has led to the creation of a “data-industrial complex” in which private and everyday information is “weaponized against us with military efficiency.” He added that this mechanism doesn’t just affect individuals, but whole societies.
He went on to indict algorithmic feeds and the ways in which they are abused: “Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies. Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or crazy.”
Indeed — there are even daily newsletters about it!
Cook’s speech had an important, and unstated, element of self-interest. Regular readers of this column know that California passed a privacy law this year that attempts to bring General Data Protection Regulation-style privacy protections to its citizens. All the big platforms are leery of a patchwork of such regulations breaking out all over the country. That’s why Cook took time today to call for a national privacy regulation, one which would allow Apple to operate uniformly across the country.
But Cook’s commitment to privacy comes with an asterisk: company’s government-ordered requirement to store iCloud user data on the servers of a state-run telecom. Alex Stamos, the recently departed chief security officer of Facebook, pointed out the issue in an valuable Twitter thread.
“Tim is right, privacy is a fundamental human right,” Stamos wrote. “I believe that Chinese people should have the same access to fundamental human rights as the rest of the world. Apple needs to document how they protect data stored by a PRC-owned cloud provider.”
As Stamos points out, iMessage is the only approved messaging app with end-to-end encryption allowed in China. He called on Apple to disclose under what circumstances Chinese authorities could access iCloud backups — and whether Apple made concessions there it hasn’t made elsewhere.
“Perhaps the answer is ‘no concessions, there is no practical mechanism for the MSS to get access to iCloud data,” he said, referring to the Ministry of State Security. “That would be wonderful, but we shouldn’t assume it to be true.”
Apple declined to comment when I asked today. In July, when the company made the deal with China’s Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, Apple issued a lengthy statement in which they reiterated their commitment to privacy and security. But they also said this:
Each country in which we do business has its own customs, culture and legal process. While our values and beliefs don’t change from country to country, we are subject to each country’s laws. 
Of course, even if Apple has made concessions to the Chinese government, it doesn’t mean the company isn’t sincere about its belief in a right to privacy. Nor does it take away the very real steps Apple does take to protect users’ privacy, particularly when compared to Facebook and Google.
But Facebook employees have had to endure months of taunting from Cook, and to date the company has suffered in silence. Stamos doesn’t work there anymore, and he doesn’t speak for Facebook in any official capacity. Still, I’d wager that his former colleagues cheered when they saw his tweetstorm today. (At press time, he had just posted a second one, lamenting the positive coverage Cook got for his remarks.)
Google and Facebook have faced blistering criticism lately for their attempts to work in China. That Apple has operated for so long in the country with so little discussion of the potential for government access to user data seems, in light of Cook’s speech, all the more conspicuous.

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