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Apple CEO takes aim at Silicon Valley data hoarders: 'This is surveillance'

"This should make us very uncomfortable. It should unsettle us," Cook said of companies that hoard data.
Image: Apple CEO Tim Cook holds up an iPhone as he speaks during a data privacy conference at the European Parliament in Brussels
Apple CEO Tim Cook at a data privacy conference at the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday.Virginia Mayo / AP

Apple chief executive Tim Cook called Wednesday for a comprehensive privacy law in the United States, citing Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation as an example for holding companies accountable to protect customer data.

"It is time for the rest of the world, including my home country, to follow suit," Cook told privacy regulators in Brussels for the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners. "We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.”

When the European Union's data regulation went into effect in May, it asserted that residents of the 28 member states own the personal data that companies collect on them and have a right to ask for a copy or to have it erased. The new law also makes companies holding user data accountable, and requires them to report a breach within 72 hours or face penalties as steep as 4 percent of their annual global turnover.

While Cook didn’t directly call out his Silicon Valley neighbors, Facebook and Google, it was clear whom he was referring to when he called out companies that hoard massive amounts of user data — which he said is then “weaponized against us with military efficiency.”

"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,” he said.

Cook added: "We shouldn't sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance. And these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them. This should make us very uncomfortable. It should unsettle us."

In March, the Apple CEO said Facebook should have self-regulated, but added, “I think we’re beyond that here.”

Apple has long positioned itself as a protector of user privacy, notably declining to cooperate with the FBI in 2016 when authorities sought to unlock an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

While Facebook and Google have faced scrutiny this year for their data collection practices, Cook has sought to position Apple as the face of “responsible tech,” adding more privacy controls for users, including secure password management; and bolstering its intelligent tracking feature in Safari, preventing companies from tracking users as they browse the internet.