LAS VEGAS - Tech giant Apple made its first official appearance at CES in almost three decades on Tuesday afternoon (Jan 7), but it was not to hawk a new product. It was to sell the idea of consumer privacy.
Apple's senior director of global privacy, Jane Horvath, participated in a panel discussion about the issue, alongside her counterparts Erin Egan from Facebook and Susan Shook of Procter & Gamble, as well as a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission, Rebecca Slaughter.
Participants called for a stronger federal law that is consistent across states for better consumer protection.
This will be consistent with Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), currently 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.
While there are some laws in the United States pertaining to consumer privacy, they are state-specific - for example, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) mandates that companies in California which store large amounts of personal information are required to disclose the types of data they collect, as well as give consumers the option of opting out of having their data sold.
Ms Horvath said: "In the United States, I think we need to book that model as well - 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."
Commissioner Slaughter agreed. She said: "There is a very real - and should be appreciated - fear that 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 added that it is challenging for companies to comply if one state mandated it to do one thing, while another state has an entirely opposite set of orders.
User privacy is increasingly one of the most important themes in the tech world, following increased scrutiny from both consumers as well as regulators over the way the industry handles one's personal data.
High-profile cases such as Facebook's 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal - when it was discovered that the personal data from the Facebook profiles of millions of American voters was harvested and used for political advertising purposes - helped propel the issue into the spotlight.
Without naming specific businesses, Ms Slaughter said that she believes many companies are not doing enough to be transparent about user privacy.
She said: "The amount of data that is collected about any individual in this room - I don't think anyone here could tell us accurately who has what data about them and how it is being used. I bet if you took a quiz about it, we'd all get a lot of it wrong unless we guess that everyone has everything."
But Apple and Facebook were quick to defend themselves and promote their own 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 also took time to discuss some of the things that the firm has done to minimise data collection in the first place - for example, when a user asks voice assistant Siri for information about the weather, the system sends out data about the city that he 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 instead to debut its latest products at its own events. The firm's rare presence at the show on Tuesday is a clear indicator of how much Apple hopes to be perceived as one that is 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."
Facebook's chief privacy officer for policy Ms Egan said that her company continually tries to improve ways on how users control their data, amid a landscape where "expectations are evolving".
Referring to the social network's updated Privacy Checkup tool, which was revamped on Monday and now allows users to quickly 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, which was formerly an acronym for the Consumer Electronics Show, runs till Friday in Las Vegas, and is expected to draw over 170,000 attendees. Many of the biggest and most important tech product launches and tech trend announcements across various sectors are made at the event, setting the tone for the rest of the year.