Apple boss Tim Cook has called for a federal privacy law in the United States, and at the same time took another thinly veiled swipe at some of the biggest social networking companies in the world.

Cook was speaking on Wednesday at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Europe, where he applauded the creation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

He made clear his wish for the United States government to adopt a similar policy at a federal level, rather than have to rely on individual state laws to ensure people’s data is kept private.

Privacy right

Cook touted Apple’s commitment to protect users’ data and privacy and said that privacy is a basic human right.

That’s why, he claimed, Apple decided data collection was against its values and the company sought a different business model and has thus managed to avoid the data privacy scandals that have engulfed Facebook and Google for example.

“The desire to put profits over privacy is nothing new,” Reuters quoted Cook as telling his audience at the conference.

Cook apparently refered to former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who in a Harvard Law Review article in 1890 warned that gossip was no longer the resource of the idle and the vicious but had become a trade.

“Today that trade has exploded into a data industrial complex,” Cook reportedly said. “Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency.”

“These scraps of data … each one harmless enough on its own … are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded, and sold,” he said.

He pointed out that algorithms (often used by the likes of Facebook and Google for example) are turning harmless preferences into hardened convictions.

“If green is your favourite colour, you may find yourself reading a lot of articles – or watching a lot of videos – about the insidious threat from people who like orange,” Cook said. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance. And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them,” he said.

Cook also said Apple fully backed a federal privacy law in the United States, something Europe has already introduced via its General Data Protection Regulation.

Google, Facebook

Cook’s message will make for uncomfortable reading for other tech leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, both of whom are to share their thoughts via video messages at the same conference.

But Cook’s stance should not surprise them, as he has expressed them before many times.

In June Apple declared that it would halt the data gathering activities by the likes of Facebook with the release of new versions of its iOS and Mac operating systems.

Apple said it would attempt to frustrate tools used by Facebook to automatically track web users.

Facebook of course depends heavily on advertising revenues (assisted by tracking tools) to fund its free service, but Apple’s decision means it is no longer willing to allow its platforms to be used in this way.

And Tim Cook has also previously expressed his disquiet at social networking platforms.

Earlier this year whilst visiting a school in England Cook said that while he doesn’t have his own kids, he does not want his nephew to use a social network.

“I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on,” Cook was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”

Cook has also previously described Facebook’s practices as being an “invasion of privacy”, but Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg subsequently said that Cook’s opinion was “glib”.

Quiz: How well do you know Apple?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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