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Tim Cook attacks Google over privacy of Photos service

Tim Cook continues to throw barely veiled barbs at Google, in an effort to position Apple as the privacy champion of Silicon Valley.

Published onJune 3, 2015

tim cook apple ceo
Tim Cook, Apple CEO (credit: Mike Deerkoski)

Tim Cook continues to throw barely veiled barbs at Google, in an effort to position Apple as the privacy champion of Silicon Valley.

Speaking at an event organized by Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy research group in Washington, DC., Cook alluded to the practices of other companies in Silicon Valley that “gobble up everything they can learn about you and try to monetize it.” “We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be,” continued the Apple CEO.

Cook did not call Google out explicitly, but it was clear for everyone in attendance that Google was one of the “prominent and successful companies” that the Apple executive was referring to.

Just to make it clear, Cook alluded to Photos, the new service that Google just launched last week at I/O.

“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

Cook implies that, when a product is offered for free, the user is actually the product. And that’s true to some extent – Google’s business is based on collecting data about the users of its services and selling ads against it. In this sense, Cook isn’t actually being dishonest. But the executive heads towards FUD territory when he portrays Google as a venal arch-peeping Tom going through your pictures (think of the children!) and selling them off to the highest bidder.

And there’s the small problem that Apple has its own ad platform, for which it collects quite a lot of user information:

“When you create an Apple ID, apply for commercial credit, purchase a product, download a software update, register for a class at an Apple Retail Store, contact us or participate in an online survey, we may collect a variety of information, including your name, mailing address, phone number, email address, contact preferences, and credit card information.”
“We also use personal information to help us create, develop, operate, deliver, and improve our products, services, content and advertising, and for loss prevention and anti-fraud purposes,”  reads Apple’s iAds privacy policy.

To be fair, Apple doesn’t collect as much user data as Google or Facebook do, simply because its business model is based on very healthy profit margins from its hardware products. Apple doesn’t need your data, the way Google needs it.

But this “Apple likes privacy, Google does not” campaign is hypocritical, and at times borderline dishonest. Just because a company processes your private information, it doesn’t mean it’s doing anything nefarious with it. And then there’s the tremendous value that is being returned to users: not only dozens of excellent free services, but products that couldn’t exist without access to private data, like Google Now and the automated tagging features of Google Photos. In fact, Apple is rumored to be trying to emulate Google Now, with an initiative codenamed Proactive, “which will leverage Siri, Contacts, Calendar, Passbook, and third-party apps to create a viable competitor to Google Now for Android devices,” according to 9to5Mac.

At the end of the day, however, this is a deeply personal choice. So what about you? Do you think that the privacy trade-off is worth it when it comes to Google’s products? Or do you agree with Tim Cook’s view on privacy on the Internet?