Seven years into his tenure as Apple CEO, Tim Cook remains a popular guy, nowhere more so than in an Apple store in New York, where he recently waded through a sea of adoring Apple fans pleading for selfies before he could sit down with VICE News for an interview.
Cook's popularity isn't hurt by the fact that his competitors in Silicon Valley have set a low bar. Already under fire for acting as a tool for voter suppression and misinformation during the 2016 election, Facebook announced Friday that it had discovered the largest security breach in the company’s history, affecting 50 million users.
Cook said that kind of data breach won’t happen at Apple, because the personal data Apple collects stays locked on iPhones, where even Apple can’t access it. “We're not in the business of building the detailed profile of you,” Cook said. “The way we go into product design, we challenge ourselves to collect as little as possible. And when we have it, we challenge ourselves to encrypt it in the end.”
Achieving that has sometimes come at a cost to Apple’s business. Apple Music, for example, could build detailed profiles of users and sell that to advertisers, as competitors Spotify, Pandora, and Google Music do. But Cook considers that an affront to the basic promise of the Apple brand.
“We don't read your messages,” he said. “These things, even in our heads, are offensive, right? To think about, these are private communications and intimate conversations that you are having. And so we wouldn't even think about that.”
Here’s what else Cook had to say about data, privacy, and more:
Cook pushed back hard on the idea that Apple’s failure to collect data is hurting Siri when compared to, say, Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. “This is another one of those false tradeoffs that people will try to get you to believe,” Cook said. “The narrative that some companies will try to get you to believe is, 'I've got to take all of your data to make my service better.' Well, don't believe that. Whoever's telling you that — it's a bunch of bunk.”
The privacy issue is bigger than Apple. “I see privacy as central to liberty,” Cook said. “I don't want to see it slip away. Because it's like a part of us slipping away. I mean when I say 'us,' I don't mean us Apple; I mean us as Americans.”
It’s time for the government to regulate privacy, even though regulation will be shaped by a Congress that’s not particularly tech-savvy. “I'm not a pro-regulation kind of person. I believe in the free market deeply,” he said. “But I think you have to recognize when the free market doesn't produce the result that’s great for society. You have to ask yourself: What do we need to do? And I think some level of government regulation is important to come out of that.”
Apple’s commitment to user privacy also applies to China, even though Chinese user iCloud data is stored in China. “The thing in China that some people have confused is: Certain countries, and China is one of them, have a requirement that data from local citizens has to be kept in China,” he says. “The other thing that they did, which is unique to China, is they passed a rule that in order to provide a cloud service, you needed a license. And in order to secure a license, you needed to be a domestic company. And so we worked with a Chinese company to provide iCloud, but the keys — which is the key, so to speak, pardon the pun — are ours.”
Cook denies the Chinese government now has an easier time getting Chinese customers’ information. “It's not easy for anybody to get it. I mean it's encrypted like it is everywhere. So, no, I wouldn't get caught up in ‘Where's the location of it?’ I mean, we have servers located in many different countries in the world. They are not easier to get data from being in one country versus the next.”
Cook said removing Alex Jones from Apple’s podcasting app for hate speech is an example of why human curation is important. “What users want from us, and what we've always provided them, is a curated platform,” he says. “What the user wants is someone that does review these apps. Someone that does review the podcasts. Someone that on, like Apple News, where a human is selecting the top stories.”
Alex Jones has been peddling Sandy Hook conspiracies for a long time, but Cook said there was no single incident that led to the ban. “I don't want to get into a singular kind of event. But I think there's enough there that reasonable people could agree that, if you're going to curate, that that should be off. … We have an app called Safari. Safari is the app for you if you want to look at anything that's on the free and open Internet that's not on our app store.”
Facebook and Twitter followed Apple’s lead on Jones, but Cook said there was no discussion or coordination between companies. “I've never even had a conversation about [Alex Jones] with any other tech companies,” he said. Why not? “We make our decisions independently and I think that's important. Honestly. I've had no conversation. And to my knowledge, no one at Apple has.”