While delivering Stanford University’s commencement speech on Sunday, Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook criticized the tech industry’s privacy issues and suggested that it has failed to take responsibility for the “chaos” it has sowed.
Cook contended that while Silicon Valley is known for creating some of the most important inventions in modern history, the industry is becoming known for a loss of privacy, the spread of hate speech, and more.
"Too many seem to think good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes," the CEO said. "But whether you like it or not, what you build and what you create define who you are.
"If feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this. But if you've built a chaos factory, you can't dodge responsibility for the chaos. Taking responsibility means having the courage to see things through."
Big dreams and false miracles
During his speech, Cook nailed the tech industry for trying to preserve its image as a bastion for free ideas and thought even as it fails to reel in the negative effects it can have on society.
"Here's a plain fact — Silicon Valley is responsible for some of the most revolutionary inventions in modern history ... But lately, it seems, this industry is becoming known for a less noble innovation. The belief that you can claim credit without accepting responsibility," Cook said.
Without calling out specific companies by name, the Apple CEO pushed back against social media giants that don't do enough to stop hate speech on their platforms. He even attacked the defunct blood-testing company Theranos.
"We see it every day now, with every data breach, every privacy violation, every blind eye turned to hate speech. Fake news poisoning our national conversation. False miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood," Cook said.
The Apple chief argued that the loss of privacy and the rise of surveillance technologies like facial recognition software — which has drawn the ire of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union — will have a chilling effect on free thought.
According to Cook, if society begins to accept data leaks and hacks as part of our daily lives, we will lose the freedom to be human.
"In a world without digital privacy, even if you've done nothing wrong other than think differently, you begin to censor yourself," Cook said. "Not entirely at first, just a little. Bit by bit. To risk less, to hope less, to imagine less, to dare less, to create less, to try less, to talk less, to think less."
In the end, Cook said, the result will be a less imaginative world that runs contrary to the kind of open-mindedness and free thinking that led to the establishment of the tech industry.
"If we believe that freedom means a place where great ideas can take root, then it's our duty to change course. Because your generation ought to have the same freedom to shape the future as the generation before," Cook said.
Apple’s privacy battles
Apple's CEO has been a fierce critic of competitors like Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOG, GOOGL), which primarily make their fortunes by collecting user data and using it to sell advertisements. While giving his commencement speech at Duke University in 2018, Cook said that Apple rejects the notion that getting the most out of technology means having to give away your right to privacy.
The company has put its money where its mouth is on privacy, as well. During Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, the company unveiled its new Sign in with Apple feature, which lets you sign into websites and apps using your Apple ID credentials rather than your Facebook or Google credentials.
Apple gives you the option of using your actual email address tied to your Apple ID, or instead, using a randomly-generated fake address that ties back to your Apple ID. If you want to use the fake address, Sign in with Apple sends a signal to the company that you are trying to keep your data private. It then sends that phony account to the site or app and logs you in.
That fake address ensures websites that you log into won't be able to track your private data. It also means Google and Facebook won't have access either, since you're not using their products to log in.
The company has also killed the ability for third-party social trackers from Facebook and Twitter to see what websites you frequently visit.
In May, Cook gave the commencement address during Tulane University's graduation ceremony during which he told students to challenge the status quo, and work to improve the world. Cook touched on a number of topics including criminal justice reform, climate change, immigration, and economic inequality.
He also told students to rise above the current acrimonious political climate, saying that no one has or ever will build monuments to trolls.
Cook's predecessor, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, famously made the commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 during which he discussed his cancer diagnosis and his life before Apple, when he left the company, and his return. During the speech he uttered the memorable phrases, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
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