Essays on Technology and Culture

Apple, Privacy, and Tim Cook’s Homosexuality

Apple’s historically been a company that treats the privacy of its users as a high priority—iCloud hacks not withstanding. The encryption on their proprietary iMessage platform, for example, is strong enough, and common enough to piss off the US government. And it’s not just privacy from the government that Apple’s known for: it’s protecting user data from advertisers, best expressed in Tim Cook’s angry invictive at EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in June. It’s not a new thing for Apple, extending back to Steve Jobs’s tenure as CEO, but it’s gained new focus under Tim Cook. And I think I know why.

Tim Cook is 54 years old, born and raised in Alabama, and gay. For a gay man growing up in the Southern US in the 60s and 70s, the idea of being outed, or being out yourself, comes with huge, huge risks. In 2015, it’s a lot easier to be open about your sexuality—at least in some parts of the Western world—than it used to be. It’s still no guarantee of acceptance from your family or friends. While I’ve kept my own sexuality fairly private, I only came out publically on this site recently, and there are still people in my family who (I think) don’t know—and my family is, for the most part, open and supportive. In his excellent talk, “How Designers Destroyed the World”, Mike Monteiro tells of two gay people outed to their homophobic famlies due to Facebook privacy changes. Because of Facebook’s negligence, these two people have now lost their famlies. It’s getting better and safer to be LGBT, but the risk of losing families, friends, and jobs is still higher for LGBT people, even now.

The attitudes and priorities of the founders and CEOs of companies filter into the products they make. The risks of being outed aren’t going to be on the mind of your average straight, white, male CEO. When you don’t have to worry about what people think of you, when you carry no secrets that risk you losing your family, friends, or livelihood, it’s easy to assume the rest of the world has the same luxury. It’s not hard to see a CEO who knows what is at risk, as much in 2015 as it was in 1975, to have your secrets shared with those you need to keep them from. And if you’re going to be keeping your secrets private from them, you’ll want to keep them private from advertisers too. Nothing like an automated ad serving algorhitm to show you something that jeopardizes your secrets, without the awareness and compassion of humanity behind it.

One huge benefit of increasing diversity in the technology industry is to have more points of view into solving problems. Would Facebook have opted to reveal memberships in groups publically if one of the decision makers in the process was gay, and knew the risks? It’s hard to say for sure, but I can imagine knowing the risks would give them pause. We’ll never know for sure. Apple under Tim Cook is only one data point, and there’s other things that set it apart beyond just the CEO’s sexual orientation. They’re also not perfect, but they are taking the lead on privacy in a space where the focus is on forcing users to be more open, and algorithms to be more secret. I know which side I would prefer to be on, regardless of sexuality.