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Tim Cook says privacy is an issue of morality

Technically Incorrect: Implicitly criticizing the likes of Google and Facebook as gobblers of personal information, the Apple CEO makes a strong plea for respect of people's personal selves.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Tim Cook wants to defend moral principles. But who's with him? Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Have we come a long way since Mark Zuckerberg insisted that people didn't actually want privacy at all?

Zuckerberg has. He's even defended his own legally.

It's not clear, though, just how much the likes of Facebook and Google care about the privacy of all those who use its free services. This is certainly Tim Cook's point of view.

Speaking on Monday to the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Champions of Freedom Awards Dinner, Apple's CEO positively railed against companies in his own backyard.

As reported by TechCrunch, he said: "I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be."

It's not hard to imagine that among the "prominent and successful companies" were Google and Facebook. Indeed, he went on to offer some of his darkest thoughts about what companies such as these do with people's data.

He said: "You might like these so-called free services, but we don't think they're worth having your e-mail, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is."

That's a quaint hope. People are far too enamored with all the amusements that the Web offers. If they have a belief at all, people unconsciously hope that the likes of Google and Facebook don't care about your actual life. They're just using your information to make money.

Cook, though, presented the issue in deeply political terms. He said: "We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demand it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it."

Morality is a feast that moves as it's eaten. It's admirable that Cook would appeal to our moral core, but how much is there left? And how many can identify it?

Part of the problem, of course, is that the American people haven't really demanded privacy at all. They might offer the occasional lip service. Equally, though, we twitch our digital fingers nonstop in order to post more and more things about ourselves for more and more people. The quest for some tiny level of approval and fame -- which the likes of Facebook and Instagram offer -- is too much of a lure for most.

It may well be that future generations will have a collective moment where they reassess the moral concept of privacy. I'm not sure they've had it yet. The (empty) benefits are too great.

Though Cook was awarded by EPIC for his "corporate leadership" in the privacy area, the question is how much of his thinking will change the behavior of ordinary humans, as well as the people that are corporations.

Sometimes being right gets you nowhere at all.