Tim Cook Opens a New Front in Apple-Facebook Battle

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Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook delivered more than a commencement speech at Duke University on Sunday. He sent a clear message about data privacy — once again — to 5,500 graduates.

“We reject the excuse that getting the most out of technology means trading away your right to privacy,” said Cook, who earned an MBA from Duke. “So we choose a different path, collecting as little of your data as possible, being thoughtful and respectful when it’s in our care because we know it belongs to you.”

Sound familiar? For the second time in roughly a month, Cook forcefully took Facebook (ticker: FB) to task for its handling of its members’ personal information, cementing a narrative pushed by Apple (AAPL) that juxtaposes its strict privacy approach — and by extension, its business model — with Facebook and other ad-dependent companies that aggressively monetize data. We weighed in on the growing tech divide in a recent cover story.

By invoking social responsibility, a topic that resonates with the under-30 demographic, Cook is taking Apple’s approach directly to younger workers and customers.

“When you say we, as an organization, take privacy very seriously, it is an effective recruiting tool and one to gain a competitive advantage” for a younger audience,  says Rashmi Knowles, field Chief Technology Officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa at RSA Security. RSA recently disclosed that 51% of younger millennials (18-to-24) surveyed were concerned with personal information, particularly on social media, being used for blackmail.

Cook’s calculus is shrewd: His underlying argument, tucked within the speech, is a reminder that Apple considers itself a trustworthy and socially responsible employer, which plays well in the Silicon Valley recruiting wars. Doing the right thing is baked within the culture of most tech companies here. Indeed, during a recent visit to Facebook, an official told Barron’s the controversy swirling around the Cambridge Analytica privacy flap, as well as the company’s role in the 2016 presidential election, has gnawed at employees concerned about the company’s image.

“This was clearly Cook trying to paint Apple in a positive light to a younger demographic and use the Facebook Cambridge situation to highlight Apple’s strict data privacy standard,” Daniel Ives, head of technology research at GBH Insights, tells Barron’s.  “Cook has been vocal about data privacy and this was a good forum to paint the picture around where Apple as a company and culture sits on this hot-button issue.”

Apple had no comment on Cook’s speech, but the company has insisted in the past that its message about privacy has been consistent for nearly a decade. At a commencement speech at MIT last year, Cook didn’t directly address data privacy, but he did touch on the perils on social media.

“Technology today is integral to almost all aspects of our lives and most of the time it’s a force for good,” Cook said then. “And yet the potential adverse consequences are spreading faster and cutting deeper.”

Facebook declined comment on Cook’s Duke speech. When Cook criticized Facebook on data privacy in an interview with MSNBC last month, it prompted an uncharacteristically sharp rebuke from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm Syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me,” he said.

Cook is counting on a new wave of graduates to decide just how ridiculous it is.

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