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Tim Cook just threw down on data privacy. And it was awesome

Susan Etlinger
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 11:  Apple CEO Tim Cook waves during the keynote address at the Apple 2012 World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) at Moscone West on June 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Apple unveiled a slew of new hardware and software updates at the company's annual developer conference which runs through June 15.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple CEO Tim Cook gave what TechCrunch called a "blistering speech" on data privacy Monday night at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) "Champions of Freedom" event.

“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” Cook said. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

Cook's speech has sparked thousands of news articles and questions about his motives, plans, wisdom in poking the bear(s), whether Cook--and Apple--is really prepared to address privacy head-on, and what it all means for the ecosystem of digital products and services.

After all, as Vala Afshar has said, "If the service is free, then you are the product."

We all know that, right? Can we please just move on?

Tempting as it may be for those distracted by all that juicy data, there is a second, critical question.

What do we do about it? As technology developers? Organizations? Consumers?

This is a conversation that has to happen. Seriously. Now. With action. And clear outcomes.

Privacy is not about some vague, rose-colored future, it's about trust, and what happens when consumers distrust the organizations with which they interact.

  • PwC has said that, as of last year, 50% of CEOs surveyed identify trust "as a real threat to their growth prospects."
  • The World Economic Forum is examining what trust means, and how to decode it.
  • The Edelman Trust Barometer reveals how lack of trust actually affects consumer behavior (hint: it's not good).
  • We at Altimeter Group are working on research on consumer attitudes about data privacy, and a framework for ethical data use, to come.

It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Just because we honor privacy on one hand, doesn't mean we have to limit innovation on the other. It just demands a new calibration of what innovation means, and what other models we can imagine to support both insight AND trust.

Tim Cook just threw down a pretty big gauntlet for the industry (and for Apple). Facebook, who he called out in his speech, is doing promising work with DataSift (disclosure: our client) to deliver privacy-safe "topic data." I don't know what plans, if any, Google has in this direction, but the momentum of this issue can't be lost on them.

There are no easy answers, but there are informed choices to be made. And better do it now, before the wave of predictive analytics, Internet of Things, augmented and virtual reality and other technologies yet to be invented really get going.

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