Big Brother, the elusive but omnipresent villain imagined by George Orwell, has crossed from dystopian fantasy to 21st-century life, to hear Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook tell it.
Earth's 7.6 billion tenants are being tracked not through spies and television screens but smartphone apps, with the data leveraged by people more concerned with profit than political power.
"This crisis is real," Cook said at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels on Wednesday. "It is not imagined, or exaggerated, or 'crazy.'" While technological advances are accomplishing tremendous good – driving breakthroughs in treating disease and fighting climate change, for instance – news reports are replete with examples of how they can harm rather than help.
"Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies," Cook said in a speech laden with references to European archetypes of good, evil, and realpolitick, including Niccolo Macchiavelli. "Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false."
Indeed, social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter have shut down millions of accounts this year that were created by agents of foreign powers such as Russia seeking to influence and inflame voters in elections including the U.S. midterm elections as they did before President Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential race.
At the same time, cyberattacks at Facebook, credit bureau Equifax and other companies have exposed the personal data of hundreds of millions of consumers, fueling a push toward federal privacy standards in the U.S. that some supporters say should be modeled after Europe's General Data Protection Regulation.
That rule, which took effect in May, requires companies to use "clear and plain language" in requesting approval from users for the processing of their data, along with an explanation of what the business plans to do with the information. Violations carry a maximum penalty of 4 percent of annual revenue or €20 million, whichever is greater, and the regulation requires businesses to notify users of a breach within three days and to erase that user's information entirely upon request.
"It is time for the rest of the world – including my home country – to follow your lead," Cook told European regulators Wednesday. Any law in the U.S. should include requirements that people be told what data companies are collecting and how they plan to use it as well as provisions enabling customers to see their data, correct it and delete it, if they choose.
"Companies should recognize that data belongs to users," he added, while acknowledging that some businesses will oppose any form of privacy legislation and others will endorse it in public then undermine it in private.
"They may say to you, ‘Our companies will never achieve technology’s true potential if they are constrained with privacy regulation,’" he said. "But this notion isn’t just wrong, it is destructive."
Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who chairs his chamber's commerce committee, believes there's bipartisan support for a federal law governing consumer data privacy, an issue addressed on a piecemeal basis by past measures including the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"A decade from now, we may look back and view this past year as a watershed with respect to the issue of consumer data privacy," he said during a late September hearing on the matter. "The question is no longer whether we need a federal law to protect consumers’ privacy. The question is what shape that law should take."
At Apple, respect for privacy and a suspicion of authority have been part of the company's DNA since its formation by Steve Jobs and early partner Steve Wosniak in an a California garage, Cook said.
"We introduced the Macintosh with a famous TV ad channeling George Orwell's 1984 – a warning of what can happen when technology becomes a tool of power and loses touch with humanity," he said.
Decades later, when Apple created the iPhone, its developers "realized it could put more personal data in your pocket than most of us keep in our homes," Cook continued. While both Jobs and his company faced significant pressure to share that information freely, they refused.
Technology firms have a responsibility to recognize "that the devices we make and the platforms we build have real, lasting, even permanent effects on the individuals and communities who use them," Cook added.
"Every day, billions of dollars change hands, and countless decisions are made, on the basis of our likes and dislikes, our friends and families, our relationships and conversations, our wishes and fears, our hopes and dreams," Cook said.
"These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded, and sold," he added, enabling some businesses to create a lasting digital profile that knows customers better than those customers know themselves.
"We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences," Cook said. "This is surveillance. And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them."