Apple's Tim Cook: Silicon Valley has created privacy-violating 'chaos factory'

Time for tech companies to take responsibility for the digital privacy mess they're created, says Apple chief.

Apple CEO lambasts Silicon Valley for not owning up to privacy mistakes

Big tech companies are failing to take responsibility for the chaos that their innovations have created, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook.

In a speech to Stanford university graduates, Cook said the recent impact of the technology industry had not been "neat or straightforward", with the negative impact on privacy particularly bad.

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Cook told the graduates that while Silicon Valley is responsible for some revolutionary inventions, from smartphones to social media, the tech industry is becoming better known for a less noble development: trying to claim credit for innovations without accepting responsibility when things go wrong.

"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. The false promise of miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood. Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes," he said.

He went on: "It 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."

Cook said this was particularly important when it came to privacy.

"If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold, or even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data," he said. "We lose the freedom to be human."

The tech industry certainly has a poor track record in protecting the privacy of the people who buy and use its products. For some companies, harvesting as much information about what we search for, who we talk to and where we go – and then packing it and selling it on – is the basis of their business model.

Other companies regularly fail to implement the basics of security in their products, which means they can be easily hacked into to steal our data or to enable the devices to be used for surveillance. Other tech companies have found their services being used for spreading disinformation with the aim of influencing elections. 

Meanwhile, governments are increasingly trying to crack down on the use of encrypted communications services, which have in the past few years sprung up as a way of shielding conversations from prying eyes. Police argue they need a way to intercept these conversations; privacy advocates argue that governments already have too much information about us anyway.

Cook said: "In a world without digital privacy, even if you have done nothing wrong other than think differently, you begin to censor yourself. Not entirely at first. Just a little, bit by bit... The chilling effect of digital surveillance is profound, and it touches everything."

That's the opposite of the free-thinking environment that helped create the tech giants in the first place.

"What a small, unimaginative world we would end up with. Not entirely at first. Just a little, bit by bit. Ironically, it's the kind of environment that would have stopped Silicon Valley before it had even gotten started," he said.