Apple and Your Privacy: CEO Tim Cook Speaks

Apple has published a new privacy section of its website that is led by an open letter from Apple CEO Tim Cook. “At Apple,” he writes, “your trust means everything to us.”

This simple statement is important, especially for a company with the size, reach, and power of Apple. This whole page — and what Cook goes on to write — is a letter but it’s also almost a promise, almost a manifesto. It embodies a core reason why I turn to Apple products and again and again. I do believe that Apple cares more for its customers than many other companies — and that Apple respects its customers.

If Apple holds anything higher than the customer experience, it’s the product itself. That may be Apple’s only weakness — by elevating the product to become the best it can be, Apple occasionally makes choices that don’t give all of its customers important options. Case in point? Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display. By honing the size down to the smallest possible footprint, Apple also decided to use non-upgradable memory and difficult-to-upgrade flash storage. I think a good number of customers would we willing to sacrifice two millimeters of thinness for upgradability instead of trying to figure out if 128GB is enough storage for them for the next three years.

But that’s an aside. Apple gets it right more often than any other consumer tech company. As for privacy, when people ask me why they should invest in an iPhone or MacBook or iPad, it’s more than just a pretty screen or millions of apps. It’s about how Apple approaches its business, which flies in the face of many other tech companies these days.

Cook writes, “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.”

This means that free services depend on advertising, and often, the harvesting of comprehensive personal activity and data so that it can be packaged and sold to advertisers. Now, advertising isn’t bad, but it is a hungry, desperate monster that clamors to be fed. Just because a kid wants a cookie, it doesn’t mean the kid won’t eat a banana when you won’t give him a cookie. Lots of tech companies throw up their hands and start feeding the monsters whatever they want. Not Apple.

Apple’s business doesn’t revolve around selling data. It revolves around customer delight.

Cook writes:

“Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.”

This is an important message in 2014 and beyond, and I hope that Apple keeps hammering it home. It’s a different way of doing business, and I believe it’s better.

Last of all, Cook writes, “Finally, I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”

This last statement is good, but no one can take it beyond face value, unfortunately. Notice that Cook does not say, “We have not turned over any customer data to any government agency.”

What’s good is that Apple collects and stores less data than some other tech companies, and if Apple isn’t in the business of harvesting data, Apple can delete or discard that data — or never collect it in the first place — and if Apple doesn’t have the data, Apple can’t turn it over to any government agency.

What I would like to see is a broader explanation of the data that Apple does have on hand, for how long, and how agencies manage to ask for it and get it. Apple shares some information on it’s new Government Information Requests page but doesn’t reveal, for example, what it has been required to provide to national security organizations in the 250 requests that came in during the first six months of 2014.

Meanwhile, what about you personally?

In addition to the open letter from Cook, you should read two more pages: Privacy Built In and Manage Your Privacy. Both are good at helping Apple customers understand what heck is going on with their devices.


About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.