Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, warned of the “dire consequences” in sacrificing the right to privacy in an impassioned speech on Friday as Barack Obama sought to repair a deep rift with the technology industry.
Speaking moments before the president at a White House-organised cybersecurity summit aimed at fostering greater cooperation – and sharing of private information – with Silicon Valley, Cook said technology companies had a duty to protect their customers.
The highest-profile tech executive at the meeting, Cook said privacy meant the difference between “life and death” for many people.
Cook’s remarks arrived as many in the tech community have expressed concerns about government attempts to weaken encryption – standards for protecting the privacy of data online. In the wake of revelations from the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, Apple and its competitors have moved to strengthen encryption and faced a backlash from government officials.
The Apple boss, who last year publicly acknowledged he is gay, added that “history has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences”.
The leaders of Apple’s fellow giants in the tech industry – including Facebook, Google and Microsoft – were not in attendance at the White House summit, in a sign seen by many as a snub to the president. But Cook had strong words in an address that directly preceded remarks from Obama.
“We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally. Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they choose,” he said.
“A world in which that information can make a difference between life and death,” Cook said. “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.”
“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 said Apple was “committed to working productively” with the government to protect citizens but reiterated his support for the toughest possible technological solutions for protecting people’s personal data.
Obama announced new rules ahead of the meeting, pushing for greater cooperation between private companies and the government on information sharing. “We have to work together like never before,” Obama said at Stanford, “to meet the challenges of this information age.
“When people go online, they shouldn’t have to forfeit the basic privacy we’re assured as Americans,” Obama said.
But the White House has clashed repeatedly – and increasingly – with the major firms and smaller players in the industry since Snowden’s revelations began. Apple, among others, has sought to reassure its customers by introducing strong encryption protocols to protect their communications, a move US and UK officials have said will help criminals and terrorists.