Apple CEO Tim Cook on Snowden, surveillance, sweatshops, and the threats to the planet

The usually tight-lipped chief executive of Apple opened up to PBS' Charlie Rose in a two-part interview. Here's the second part.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on
Image: Charlie Rose/PBS

Apple's chief executive Tim Cook opened up for the second-part of his hour-long interview with PBS' Charlie Rose on Monday.

In the first-part of the interview, the Apple boss spoke about the company's rivalries with Google, its distant relationship with Amazon, corporate secrecy, the Apple-IBM deal, televisions and other products, his former boss Steve Jobs, and when things go wrong.

In the second-part, Cook spoke about government surveillance and the Edward Snowden disclosures, his company's supply chain and some of the controversies Apple's faced as a result, and saving the planet as we know it.

PBS shared a copy of the interview's transcript with ZDNet.

Here's what we learned:

On Edward Snowden and the surveillance state

The leaks from the former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden threw a number of technology giants under the bus, including Apple, which was implicated in the PRISM scandal.

That balance between privacy and necessary surveillance against terrorists, and domestic and international threats, he said, has not been met.

"I don’t think that the country, or the government’s found the right balance. I think they erred too much on the collect everything side. And I think the [U.S.] president and the [Obama] administration is committed to kind of moving that pendulum back.

However, you don’t want... it’s probably not right to not do anything. And so I think it’s a careful line to walk. You want to make sure you’re protecting American people. But... there’s no reason to collect information on you. But people are 99.99 percent of other people."

Apple previously said that even it can't access iMessage and FaceTime communications, stating that such messages and calls are not held in an "identifiable form."

He claimed if the government "laid a subpoena," then Apple "can't provide it." He said, bluntly: "We don't have a key... the door is closed." 

He reiterated previous comments, whereby Apple has said it is not in the business of collecting people's data. He said: "When we design a new service, we try not to collect data. We're not reading your email."

Cook went on to talk about PRISM in more detail, following the lead from every other technology company implicated by those now-infamous PowerPoint slides:

"I think that the, for us, in the Snowden thing, just to go along on that for just a moment. What we wanted, was, we wanted instantly to be totally transparent because there were rumors and things being written in the press that people had backdoors to our servers. None of that is true. Zero.

We would never allow that to happen. They would have to cart us out in a box before we would do that."

The reports were widely regarded as discredited to a certain degree, as it transpired that the U.S. government did not have "direct access" to servers in the aftermath of the reporting.

On business models around collecting people's data

On a similar line of thinking, Cook went on to lay more blame at companies like Google, which Rose referenced in his question, for holding on to so much data — which allowed the government to collect so much in the first place.

"We run a very different company. I think everyone has to ask, how do companies make their money? Follow the money. And if they’re making money mainly by collecting gobs of personal data, I think you have a right to be worried."

He went on to explain that users of products and services should "really understand what's happening to that data."

Although he said companies should be transparent about data practices, Apple was one of the Silicon Valley technology giants to issue a transparency report far later than anyone else. The company came under fire from the privacy rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in 2012 and 2013 for having poor privacy practices around user data, gaining just one star out of five each year.

In 2014, Apple scored the full five stars — a momentous change in such a short period of time.

"I think people have a right to privacy," Cook added. Because of Apple's business practices, he hinted, that's a good reason why U.S. government demands for data are so low.

On diversity and dignity

Apple also came under fire for having a poor diversity record as part of its workplace statistics — from no less than Cook himself. He said in August following the release of the company's debut diversity report that he was "not satisfied," but that the company was "making progress."

He expanded on this in the interview, in response to a question from Rose about what's important to him, personally, beyond the culture and values of Apple:

"Treating people with dignity. Treating people the same. That everyone deserves a basic level of human rights, regardless of their color, regardless of their religion, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their gender. That everyone deserves respect."

He went on to describe a "class-kind of structure" in which some groups think other groups of people don't deserve the same rights.

Cook flat out called it "un-American." He said Apple was the sort-of place where it will "allow anyone in the front door," but did not directly address the concerns from the diversity report released a month prior.

On saving the planet

Cook said this is one of the things that Apple was "putting a lot of energy in," notably the planet's health and how the company is working to increase its renewable energy focus.

"You know, we want to leave the world better than we found it," Cook told Rose. But he also admitted the company's limitations. 

"I think we’re still the only consumer electronics company that’s done that. It means that we focus on renewable energy, and so we have a data center that people tell us we could never get to 100 percent renewable energy there. It’s just too much of — it’s too much. We’d never get there. Well, we’re there... we have it in Maiden, North Carolina. You should go see it.

Working with both the state and working with... the talent without Apple, we were able to pull that off. We’ve got other data centers; 100 percent renewable. We’re building the headquarters — our new headquarters. It will be 100 percent renewable."

And that doesn't rule out the company's own supply of chips, technologies, and parts that make Apple's own products. Cook said Apple had initiatives going in order to "dig deep" within its upstream supply chain in efforts to reduce the company's overall carbon footprint.

On the supply chain and "sweatshops"

But the supply chain has caused some headaches for Apple — not least, the conditions in which the staff in Chinese factories live and work in.

The iPhone and iPad maker has come under heavy scrutiny for its responsibilities to its suppliers, notably Foxconn. Over the course of the last few years, there have been numerous suicides, threats of violence, strikes, and complaints about working conditions.

Apple has also faced some significant criticism following audits, which found the company's suppliers to have violated labor rules and rights.

Cook defended the company's record:

"We've audited so deep in our supply chain. We do it constantly, looking for anything that's wrong, whether it's down to the — there's a safety exit blocked. We have gone beyond the auditing and are now essentially holding university-style classes on the manufacturing campuses with our partners...

We're trying to provide education, which to me, is the great equalizer among people, to people on the factory floor who want and aspire to do more. And so, we worked with local Chinese universities to employ classes right on campus, to make it super convenient for people."

On corporate secrecy, he admitted that he is as transparent as he can be, "unlike me being secretive about the future" of its products.

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