Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the annual session of China Development Forum (CDF) 2018 at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
Apple chief executive Tim Cook. Apple has been trying for a while to turn its more restrictive approach to user data into a differentiator © Reuters

It’s easy to be cynical about the way Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, kicked Facebook when it was down this week.

Apple has become the most valuable company in the world without having any need to siphon off its customers’ personal data. So taking the moral high ground and declaring privacy a “human right” at a time when Facebook is under fire for leaking the personal information of 50m users looks like an easy decision. Apple has been trying for a while to turn its more restrictive approach to user data into a differentiator, and Facebook’s discomfort was a boon.

Mr Cook’s comments also belie the indirect ways in which Apple is benefiting from the very same big data economy that has underpinned online advertising.

Being the default search service on the iPhone, for instance, feeds Google’s advertising revenues. In return, Apple gets a cut of this money. According to one analyst’s estimate, Google paid $3bn for its privileged position on the iPhone last year, money that would have fallen straight to Apple’s bottom line. Based on the multiple Wall Street puts on Apple’s earnings, that means Google’s advertising indirectly accounts for about $50bn of Apple’s stock market value.

Apple doesn’t get a cut of the money that Facebook makes from its iPhones, but the social networking company’s app still soaks up much of the attention of smartphone users, increasing the value of the device.

Leaving aside the natural cynicism this might evoke, however, there is much to welcome in Mr Cook’s attack on the lax data practices of other big tech companies. Higher standards are badly needed.

The mass collection of personal data isn’t about to end, even if the Facebook scandal has brought home what can go wrong. The ability to collect information on a huge scale gets easier by the day. The more a person’s life is led online, the more numerous the digital traces.

It doesn’t make sense to leave this information unharvested when there is so much value to be gained from it. Advertising is the lifeblood of much of the internet. Knowing more about the people who view online advertising increases its value, so it benefits both sides for that information to be used. What matter are the controls and the transparency around the data collection.

Having more information about internet users should also make digital life demonstrably better. Machine learning, the main technique behind recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, feeds on big data. And the mass personalisation behind many internet services depends on a deep knowledge of users.

Apple itself has struggled with the paradox of trying to ride these technology waves while at the same time reinforcing user privacy. Its Siri voice answering service, for instance, was designed to work on the data that are held on a user’s device, rather than sending that information to a server in the cloud. One result is that an Apple customer can get different answers when talking to Siri on different devices: each is processing a different, isolated data set. To get around this, Apple began sharing information between devices last year — a sign of the trade-offs between utility and privacy that today’s technology demands.

Facebook’s discomfort has been a reminder of the way that lax controls on data collection led to a race to the bottom. So much the better, then, if Mr Cook’s comments this week encourage other tech companies to raise their sights when grappling with the hard questions of the big data economy.

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Personal data of 50m US voters from Facebook was gathered and then allegedly used by the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. The developing scandal has not only wiped billions off the social network’s market value, it has also raised questions about its role in the democratic process. Here is the best of the FT’s news coverage

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