Apple CEO Tim Cook says it was Steve Jobs that ‘geared the company to fight for people’s privacy’

Over Tim Cook’s decade as CEO of the world’s most valuable company, he has made efforts to prioritize doing right by customers and by voicing support for critical issues. And his voice matters; Apple has produced some of the most innovative tech products of all time, now boasts a market cap of over $2 trillion, and employs nearly 150,000 people. 

More specifically, with Cook at the helm, Apple has outspokenly prioritized user privacy, which he calls a “basic human right.” 

In December 2020, with the launch of Apple’s iOS 14 operating system, Apple established a permission request to be added before tracking users. “We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used,” Cook tweeted about the update.

He reemphasized this belief at the New York Times’ DealBook Summit on Tuesday, adding that late company founder Steve Jobs would agree. 

Individuals should get to decide whether their data is shared, Cook told moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin at the conference’s opening session. “We’ve been all about putting the power with the user. We’re not making the decision, we’re just letting them know if they want to be tracked. They didn’t have a choice before.”

Cook took over as company CEO in 2011, after many years serving as COO under founder Steve Jobs; he was elevated to chief executive two months before Jobs died. “Steve would be happy to see Apple’s role in helping people, and helping improve their lives, and still caring deeply about the products we put out and how they’re used.”

Jobs also predicted, early on, the issues of privacy that would soon proliferate the tech space. “He talked about privacy decades ago, and really geared the company to fight for people’s privacy,” Cook said. “He said people should know what they’re signing up for; ask them repeatedly for their permission in plain language. It’s so simple, but yet it’s been so profound that that hasn’t been the case many times.”

The world is at a unique inflection point with regard to technology and its unforeseen impacts on our lives, Sorkin said, but Cook said he remains very optimistic about his job and the industry. 

“Tech should be used to serve humanity, and not the other way around,” he said. “I always think about the user; are we doing the right things, as a company, to help improve their lives and empower them?”

In a speech at a data privacy conference in Belgium in January, Cook defined ethical technology as “technology that helps you sleep, not keeps you up. That tells you when you’ve had enough, that gives you space to create, or draw, or write or learn, not refresh just one more time. It’s technology that can fade into the background when you’re on a hike or going for a swim, but is there to warn you when your heart rate spikes or help you when you’ve had a nasty fall.”

Ethical technology, he added “always puts privacy and security first, because no one needs to trade away the rights of their users to deliver a great product.”

People and politics

Mental health, and where it intersects with technology and social media, is a vital topic that has been taboo for so long, Cook added on Tuesday. “All of us should care about making products that help people’s mental health, not play against it.”

As part and parcel of that effort, he referred to Apple’s Screen Time feature, which notifies a user when they’ve spent 30 minutes or an hour on an app and gives them the option to close out. “I know I’ve changed my behavior based on Screen Time,” Cook said. “If you’re scrolling mindlessly, letting yourself be spun up in negativity, that’s bad for mental health and the people around you.” 

Even so, Cook said it’s not incumbent upon Apple to ban certain apps, like Facebook or Instagram, from the App Store. The user can decide what to download, he said. “What we have to do is provide the information for them to be able to do that.” 

As CEO, Sorkin pointed out, Cook has been outspoken on manifold issues, including immigration policy, voting rights, and LGBTQ+ advocacy.

“Many leaders, and the public, are trying to understand the role a corporation should play today: when they can speak out and take a side and when they can’t,” Sorkin said.

Cook’s approach, he said, is to stick to policy, rather than “wading into politics.”

“Apple is one of the few medium or large companies that doesn’t have a PAC,” he pointed out. “We try to steer clear of the politics of something, and stay with policy. If it’s a policy that intersects with our values or company in some way, we’ll likely speak up. If we’d just be another voice out there, with no unique perspective, then we don’t say anything.”

Cook defended his stance on speaking up about immigration, because his company employs 450 Dreamers. “We’re very focused on getting them a pathway to citizenship, so we’re going to speak up for them,” he said. 

Often in today’s climate, Cook acknowledged, he can’t completely avoid taking a stance. “But, at least, our hearts and minds are about the policy,” he said. “When something’s important to you, you have a responsibility to say something.”

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