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Battling Facebook, Apple CEO warns of digital peeping Toms, pushes better privacy

Tim Cook's broadside in an interview with the Toronto Star comes as iOS 14.5 is set to debut with new privacy rules Facebook doesn't like.

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iPhone showing Apple logo, against a desktop screen showing Facebook's logo

Apple wants to ask users whether they consent to being tracked. Facebook says that's unfair.

James Martin/CNET

Apple and Facebook's relationship has always been best described as "it's complicated." But over the past couple months, the two companies have gone from frenemies to no longer being friendly.

The latest example comes from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who compared web and advertising giants like Facebook to peeping Toms -- people "looking in the window and seeing what's in your home" without your permission. In the digital version, he said in an interview with Canada's Toronto Star, published Monday, it's "somebody looking over your shoulder, seeing what you're searching, seeing who you're talking to, seeing what 'like' buttons you're hitting and so forth, and then building a detailed profile of that."

That, he said, is why Apple's pushing its newest privacy rules in a free iPhone and iPad software update due "in a few weeks." In his interview with the Toronto Star, Cook said the software was created in part because he believes people should be asked to give consent to modern advertising techniques. In Apple's case, the new software will include a pop-up, asking users if they consent to allowing an app or company to "track" them "across apps and websites owned by other companies" in order to "deliver personalized ads to you."

"We think that some number of people, I don't know how many, don't want to be tracked like that," Cook said. "And they should be able to say they don't."

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cook's comments mark the latest in an escalating war of words between the Apple and web giants, particularly Facebook. For the past couple years, Apple has indirectly criticized Facebook in its stage presentations. In 2018, Apple showed off its Screen Time feature, showing how often people use various apps -- and showing Facebook, in its demo, to be the ultimate time suck. In showing off a new feature for its Safari browser, Apple even said it would be "shutting down" user tracking through Facebook's ubiquitous Like buttons around the web. This all came shortly after Facebook's Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal exploded into public view, 

As Apple inched closer to adding the opt-in request to its iOS software powering iPhones, Facebook took out ads in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times saying the move would hurt small businesses and make "the internet much more expensive."

See also: iOS 14.5's release date, new features and more: Everything we know

Cook's remarks to the Toronto Star also echo what he'd told New York Times columnist and Sway podcast host Kara Swisher in an interview published last week, in which he also talked about new technologies such as augmented reality.

With the Star, though, he stuck to privacy, adding that even though Apple's privacy moves are more demanding than laws require, he believes "this is where the puck is headed."

"I think people will stop and pause for a minute and see what we're doing and it's not something that you would say, 'Wow that's really wild,' It's something you would probably look at and say, 'That's pretty reasonable.' And I think the regulation will eventually catch up," he said. "That's my prediction."

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