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Is 2019 the year we stand up for protecting our privacy? Apple CEO Tim Cook says it’s time

January 18, 2019

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

That’s what Scott McNealy, who was Sun Microsystems CEO then, stunningly proclaimed to a group of reporters and analysts at a press launch 20 years ago.

And two decades later, we consumers still haven’t gotten over it, nor should we. Especially with one high-profile data rupture after another from the likes of FacebookGoogleAmazonEquifax.

So, Thursday was potentially a big day in the name of privacy advocacy.

For starters, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has long been outspoken on the subject of privacy, published an essay in “Time Magazine,” calling for a landmark package of reforms that protect and empower the consumer. He wrote:

“In 2019, it’s time to stand up for the right to privacy — yours, mine, all of ours. Consumers shouldn’t have to tolerate another year of companies irresponsibly amassing huge user profiles, data breaches that seem out of control and the vanishing ability to control our own digital lives.”

 

Separately, more than a dozen consumer and privacy advocacy groups Thursday collectively came up with a framework to overhaul U.S. privacy laws. The emphasis is on protecting our civil rights, punishing violators and limiting government access to our data. The groups want robust federal baseline regulation that does not preempt strong U.S. state digital privacy laws, and that is similar to the stringent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy regulations that the Europe Union enacted in May.

Among other measures, the advocacy groups are seeking fair information practices around transparency, accuracy, confidentially and accountability, with the call for personal data to remain just that, personal, and be broadly defined to include information that identifies or could identify a particular person.

And they want to establish a data protection agency with the rulemaking authority that the Federal Trade Commission lacks.

So what’s the likelihood Congress will play ball?

“At the risk of being an optimist, there is reason to believe that this Congress will pass substantial privacy legislation,” says Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C., one of the groups that signed onto the proposed privacy framework. “There are several factors that have made privacy a legislative priority for many members on both sides of the aisle.”

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy, which also signed on, says, “we need more utility-like regulation for the online Big Data industry, since so many of the practices (machine learning, millisecond targeting across devices, etc.) are impossible for the average consumer to control, let alone fully understand.”

In his “Time” essay, Apple’s Cook wrote that, “One of the biggest challenges in protecting privacy is that many of the violations are invisible.”

Cook points to a scenario in which you might have bought a product from an online retailer that, right after the transaction, doesn’t reveal that it sold or transferred information about your purchase to a data broker that, in turn, packages your information and sells it to yet another buyer.

“The trail disappears before you even know there is a trail,” Cook writes. “Right now, all of these secondary markets for your information exist in a shadow economy that’s largely unchecked — out of sight of consumers, regulators and lawmakers. Let’s be clear: You never signed up for that. We think every user should have the chance to say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s my information that you’re selling, and I didn’t consent.’”

Cook wants the FTC to establish a data-broker clearinghouse that requires all data brokers to register, letting consumers track the transactions that have been bundled with other data and sold from place to place, “and giving users the power to delete their data on demand, freely, easily and online, once and for all.”

Cook and Apple are on the right side of the privacy issue, but, of course, it doesn’t hurt Apple’s brand from a marketing perspective either. At the recent CES tech industry conference in Las Vegas, Apple posted signs that read, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone,” with a link to the company’s privacy page on the web.

Apple’s business model puts it in a different position on privacy than other tech companies, says Marty Puranik, CEO of Atlantic.net, a cloud services provider for businesses. “If consumers are made aware of the way their data is being used and given a chance to opt-out or delete it, it would cause havoc for companies like Facebook and Google who rely on data mining user data to generate all their profits since users of their services don’t pay to use them. Apple, on the other hand, generates the vast majority of its revenue through a customer-vendor relationship (selling iPhones), and, because of that, would largely be unaffected by a data broker clearinghouse.”

The Center for Digital Democracy’s Chester applauds the stance that Cook is taking. But he told USA TODAY that, “We are calling on Apple to put its lobbyists where its CEO’s mouth is now.”

One thing Chester frets about is that “Google, Facebook and other large data-driven companies want Congress to enact a ‘get out of GDPR and Calif. Privacy Law‘ card for them. They are terrified that more countries or states will actually pass laws that constrain their unstoppable data behaviors.  Their bill would be a privacy ‘Potemkin village,’ proving the appearance of privacy but enabling them to engage in business as usual in terms of using our information.”

All these years later, Scott McNealy posted Cook’s “Time” story on Twitter but his take was very different than Apple’s CEO.

By Edward C. Baig
Originally published on USA TODAY

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