Tim Cook’s Duke Commencement Speech Emphasizes Tech Privacy

Apple CEO Tim Cook gave the commencement speech Sunday at Duke University, where he earned his MBA. He demonstrated the quality of that education by leveraging the opportunity to remind the world of Apple’s commitment to user privacy—and other tech companies’ privacy failings.

Cook’s speech, which can be viewed in full here, opened with a version of Silicon Valley’s feel-good ethos. “Aided by technology,” Cook said, “Every individual has the tools, potential, and reach to build a better world. That makes this the best time to be alive.” Cook also gave nods to Apple’s history, urging students to “dare to think different” before offering a remembrance of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Cook also tried to distance Apple from the dark clouds that have sullied that techno-optimism in recent years. “We reject the excuse that getting the most out of technology means trading away your right to privacy. So we choose a different path, collecting as little of your data as possible, [and] being thoughtful and respectful when it’s in our care. Because we know that it belongs to you.”

That seems most obviously a shot at Facebook. The social media giant’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal seems to have finally woken the public up to the risks social media poses not just to individual privacy, but public discourse as a whole. Cook has been unrelenting in his criticism of Facebook recently, but Apple has placed a high priority on privacy for years. Steve Jobs even took shots at Google’s data collection back in 2010—and Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans predicts that the emphasis will continue.

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But don’t mistake Cook’s words for pure altruism. Apple is in a fundamentally different business than Facebook, making profits by selling high-end hardware, instead of advertising on an open-access network. A more direct contrast might be with Amazon, which sells Fire tablets that cost less than half as much as an Apple iPad—in part because many versions of the Fire are subsidized by delivering targeted advertising. From that perspective, Apple’s focus on privacy portends a future in which some people can afford to escape digital tracking, and others can’t.

Cook on Sunday morning implicitly acknowledged the broader social context of rising inequality that could lead to that future. “The world-class education you’ve received . . . gives you opportunities that few people have. You are uniquely qualified, and therefore uniquely responsible, to build a better way forward. That won’t be easy. It will require great courage. But that courage will not only help you live your life to the fullest, it will empower you to transform the lives of others.”

That passage was clearly intended to be inspirational—but the idea of tech leaders trying to transform other people’s lives may now be less dazzling than it once was.