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‘It’s a Bunch of Bunk.’ Apple CEO Tim Cook on Why Tech Firms Don’t Need All Your Data—and Why Apple Expelled Alex Jones

October 3, 2018, 11:15 AM UTC

Apple (AAPL) famously has a more hardline stance on privacy than the likes of Google, whose business models are more dependent on treating user data as a resource for targeting advertising—Apple’s model relies instead on selling expensive devices. And many people have observed that Apple’s approach harms the development of its virtual assistant, Siri, in the race against Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

Apple CEO Tim Cook disagrees. In a wide-ranging interview with Vice News, Cook described the idea as “another one of those false tradeoffs that people will try to get you to believe.”

“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,” Cook said. “Whoever’s telling you that—it’s a bunch of bunk.”

Virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa are based on machine-learning “AI” technology that trains itself to spot patterns and understand semantic meaning, ultimately finding new ways to self-improve and provide better answers to users’ questions. It is generally accepted that more data makes for smarter systems, although this depends to an extent on the algorithmic techniques that are being employed.

Apple’s approach is based on what it calls “differential privacy”—essentially, it sucks user data into its systems, but adds “statistical noise” as it does so, to make it impossible to identify particular users from their data while still getting a meaningful result from the overall mix of data.

Cook said in his interview that Apple’s decision not to build detailed profiles of its customers meant the sort of data breach that just hit Facebook could never hit his company. Cook also said that, while he was “not a pro-regulation kind of person,” “some level of government regulation” is needed on the privacy front, as the free market itself has not dealt with the issue. Of course, given Apple’s existing privacy stance, such regulation would be more likely to harm its competitors.

The CEO also addressed Apple’s decision to kick Alex Jones and InfoWars off its podcast platform. This was not the result of cooperation with other big tech firms (Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) also ended up shunning the conspiracy theorist), nor was it the result of any particular infringement, Cook said. Instead, it was part of Apple’s role as “curator” of its platform.

“We have an app called Safari,” Cook said. “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.”