Apple joins tech giants' call for common US privacy law

Its presence at major tech show in 28 years a sign of its commitment to the issue: Analysts

Ms Rebecca Slaughter (far right) from the US Federal Trade Commission speaking as (from left) Ms Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer for policy, Ms Jane Horvath, Apple's senior director of global privacy, and Ms Susan Shook, global privacy of
Ms Rebecca Slaughter (right) from the US Federal Trade Commission speaking as (from left) Ms Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer for policy, Ms Jane Horvath, Apple's senior director of global privacy, and Ms Susan Shook, global privacy officer at Procter & Gamble, looked on, during a panel discussion at CES 2020 in Las Vegas on Tuesday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Tech giant Apple made its first official appearance at the CES trade show in almost three decades on Tuesday, but it was not to hawk a new product. It was to sell the idea of consumer privacy.

Ms Jane Horvath, Apple's senior director of global privacy, was on a panel discussing the issue with her counterparts Erin Egan from Facebook and Susan Shook from Procter & Gamble, as well as Ms Rebecca Slaughter, a commissioner at the US Federal Trade Commission.

Participants urged a stronger federal law consistent across states for better consumer protection. This will be consistent with Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), now the gold standard for consumer privacy protection, and allows users the right to know what data is being kept and request for it to be deleted.

US laws pertaining to consumer privacy are state-specific. For example, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) mandates that firms in the state which store large amounts of personal information must disclose the types of data they collect, as well as let consumers opt out of having their data sold.

Referring to the GDPR, Ms Horvath said: "In the United States, I think we need to book that model - strong federal privacy law that is consistent across all 50 states, where every consumer, regardless of where they live, is entitled to the same strong protections."

Ms Slaughter agreed, saying: "There is a very real... fear we will be living in a universe where companies are not only navigating the intricacies of CCPA, but also slightly different laws in other states, or even worse, fundamentally incompatible laws."

She also said it is challenging for firms to comply if states have different rules.

User privacy is an increasingly important theme in the tech world, amid greater scrutiny from consumers and regulators over the industry's handling of personal data.

Cases like Facebook's 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal - where personal data from millions of US voters was used for political advertising purposes - helped propel the issue into the spotlight.

Without naming companies, Ms Slaughter said she believes many firms are not doing enough to be transparent about user privacy.

But Apple and Facebook were quick to defend themselves, pointing to their privacy measures.


Referring to Apple's chief executive, Ms Horvath said: "Tim Cook is incredibly committed to privacy, and it flows through the company."

She cited how Apple is minimising data collection - for instance, when a user asks voice assistant Siri for information about the weather, the system sends out data about the city the user is in, but not his precise latitudinal and longitudinal location.

Since 1992, Apple has not been a part of CES - the biggest tech show in the world - choosing to debut its latest products at its own events. The firm's presence at this year's show is a clear indicator of how much Apple hopes to be perceived as privacy-focused, said analysts.

Mr Thomas Husson, vice-president and principal analyst for marketing and strategy at research firm Forrester, told The Straits Times: "Apple is definitely ahead of Google, Facebook or Amazon when it comes to respecting privacy and establishing trust with its customers.

"They have doubled down on privacy over the past few years and this is a key way for them to differentiate. The presence of an executive at the panel this year is a signal that the brand wants to continue to differentiate on this key theme."

Ms Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer for policy, said the firm continually tries to improve ways on how users control their data.

Referring to Facebook's Privacy Checkup tool, which was revamped on Monday and now allows users to check and alter a range of data-sharing settings, she said: "This is a tool where we say to everybody - hey, hi, like how you take a health check-up, let's take a privacy check-up. Let's take a look at who was seeing your stuff, let's make sure that you're comfortable with this."

CES, formerly an abbreviation for Consumer Electronics Show, runs till tomorrow in Las Vegas and is expected to draw more than 170,000 attendees. Many of the biggest tech product launches and trend announcements are made at the event, setting the tone for the rest of the year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2020, with the headline 'Apple joins tech giants' call for common US privacy law'. Subscribe