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Apple CEO Tim Cook: 'Sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences'

Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo CEOs snubbed President Obama's invitation to the cybersecurity summit, but Apple CEO Tim Cook attended and warned the White House that failing to protect privacy risks our way of life.

Apple CEO Tim Cook talking privacy at cybersecurity summit
Credit: White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection

At the Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection held at Stanford University, President Obama pushed for more public-private collaboration and information sharing to allegedly prevent hacks such as the breaches suffered by Home Depot, Target and Anthem. While that doesn’t sound bad, actions such as outlawing encryption – as if only terrorist or pedophiles use it – and providing law enforcement with backdoors into software sounds terrible. Any backdoors left open will also be exploited by cyber bad guys. An unnamed technology executive called it “a stupid approach.”

The top dogs from tech companies were invited to the summit as well as to a private lunch with President Obama, but Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo CEOs snubbed the invitations.

The President admitted to Re/code that Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s mass data collection “were really harmful in terms of the trust between government and many of these companies, in part because of the impact it had on their bottom line.”

Sure these companies can’t keep going if they don’t make a profit, but if anything the tech giants say is to be believed, then it’s not only about their bottom line but also because of privacy issues the government’s surveillance disregards.

Herb Lin, who spent 20 years working on cyberissues at the National Academy of Sciences before moving to Stanford, told the New York Times, “What has struck me is the enormous degree of hostility between Silicon Valley and the government. The relationship has been poisoned and it’s not going to recover anytime soon.”

“The tricky thing with information-sharing is that it is about trust,” said Eric Grosse, Google’s vice president of security and privacy. “Information-sharing becomes pretty hard to do once trust is lost.” He added, “The government is realizing they can’t just blow into town and let bygones be bygones…Their mission is clearly different than ours. It’s a source of continuing tension. It’s not like if they just wait, it will go away.”

Other bones of contention include the government stockpiling zero day exploits and having telecommunications companies store data on everyone “in case the government needs it.” The New York Times reported that telecoms “will not take on the job of ‘bulk collection’ of the nation’s communications, they say, unless Congress forces them to. And some executives whisper it will be at a price that may make the National Security Administration’s once-secret program look like a bargain.”

But it’s not like the tech companies Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo sent no one to represent them at the cybersecurity summit; chief security officers attended instead. In fact, Scott Charney, Microsoft Corporate VP of Trustworthy Computing, Eric Grosse, Google VP for Security Engineering, Joe Sullivan, Facebook Chief Information Security Officer, and Alex Stamos, Yahoo’s Chief Information Security Officer were all on a panel at the summit to present “new ideas on technical security.”

Last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the “NSA ‘would have to cart us out in a box’ before the company would provide the government a backdoor to its products.” Unlike several of the tech giant CEOs, Cook did attend the president’s cybersecurity summit. "History has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences," he said.

Although he spoke for less than 15 minutes, Cook packed in the pro-privacy quotes such as, "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. We risk our way of life."

"We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally," he said, "where too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they choose, a world in which that information can make the difference between life or death. Fortunately, technology gives us the tools to avoid these risks. It is my sincere hope that by using them and by working together, we will.”

Cook also kicked Google and Facebook while also managing to promote Apple when he said, "We have a business model that focuses on selling the best products and services in the world, not on selling your personal data.”

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