Friday, President Obama announced a cybersecurity executive order that would allow the government and private companies to exchange information about potential hacking and terrorism threats. Google and Facebook declined to send its CEOs to an event pitching the order. Apple CEO Tim Cook, meanwhile, used the opportunity to pitch his products.
Cook positioned Apple as the more privacy-minded rival to Google and Facebook. He said Apple, which has clashed with the government in the past over encryption, doesn't sell content from users' email to advertisers or monetize any information stored on the iCloud. He also announced that Apple would partner with the government to expand the use of Apple Pay, its digital wallet service that links mobile devices with payment systems.
"When we ask you for data, it's to improve our services, and even then, you have a choice of what info you want to share," he said. "We set the industry's highest standards, and we are committed to living up to them."
Cook's statements hinted at tensions between major technology companies and the US government over spying practices. He said privacy is the "difference between life and death" for some.
"If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money," he said. "We risk our way of life."
All of that is true, but talking about privacy after agreeing to use the federal government's cybersecurity framework, at an event where the federal government announced it would start using Apple Pay for some federal transactions, is dubious. Will Apple be able to resist government pressure for user information if the government becomes one of its most important customers (and "partners," a word that Obama used)?
Apple was one of several companies, including Intel, Bank of America, US Bank, Pacific Gas & Electric, AIG, QVC, and Walgreens that has agreed to use a cybersecurity framework drafted by the White House. Other companies, including divisions of Sony and Microsoft, went a step further, signing on to share information with the federal government, effective immediately.
"This has to be a shared mission," Obama said in a speech before signing the act. "There's only one way to defend America from these cyber threats, and that is through government and industry working together, sharing appropriate information as true partners."
Cook, it seems, is now one of those partners. He says he's committed to privacy, but, then again, why was he there, when execs like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page declined to attend?
"We have the ability to protect people from this growing threat, but we must get this right," Cook said. "People have entrusted us with their most personal and precious info––we owe them nothing less than the best protections we can possibly provide. By harnessing the tech at our disposal, we believe we can bring about a future that fully embraces both privacy and security."