Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, and 10 other technology company leaders trooped to Trump Tower in New York this week, where the President-elect told them they were “amazing” and said, “I’m here to make you folks do well.” He pledged to do “anything we can do to help.” We’re glad to hear it, and we have a few ideas for steps the new administration can take to fulfill that commitment.
If Mr. Trump wants to help technology thrive, he should start by protecting users and innovation from policies and practices that threaten privacy, civil liberties, and a free Internet. Users are beset by overreaching digital collection and the tracking of personal information on all fronts. We exist in an era of unprecedented government invasions into our private lives, made easier by the digital devices we carry and the servers and cloud storage that hold information about every aspect of our lives—where we go, what we say, what we buy, and with whom who we associate.
We’ve seen the government under Presidents Bush and Obama continually push for unfettered access to highly personal information, increasing pressure on technology companies to decrease the security they offer users and turn themselves into the government’s unofficial censor of what the rest of us say online. We’ve also watched the government increasingly assert the right to break into our computers and networks—with no debate in Congress and insufficient court oversight—to gather private information and even infect our laptops with malware that sends the contents of our private files straight to the FBI.
Mr. Trump’s comments on surveillance and security and his national security picks seem to indicate that he intends to continue these practices, rather than stem them. If so, he should rethink that plan. These practices will further erode user confidence in technology and put the privacy of millions of Americans at risk. It’s the wrong way to help technology thrive.
Cook said at the outset of the meeting that he was looking forward to talking to the President-elect about what Apple can do “to help you achieve some of the things you want.” We don’t know exactly what projects or policies Trump might be expecting the tech industry to support. But we know Trump may be eyeing databases to track and surveil refugees, and has said he will deport millions of immigrants. He may look to technology companies to help him reach those goals, either by providing the software and hardware or by providing user information.
Hundreds of technologists from a broad range of companies, including Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Mozilla, and even Palantir Technologies, have pledged that they will not help build systems to track people in violation of the Constitution, such as databases that would allow the government to target individuals based on race, religion or national origin. We applaud these individuals for their proactive approach.
Mr. Trump and tech leaders agreed to continue meeting. It’s naïve to think that Trump’s pledge to do “anything to help” the technology industry won’t come with strings attached. As they prepare for these meetups, technology executives should be asking themselves what Mr. Trump will expect in return for his “help,” and whether they’ll be willing to pony up if it means throwing users’ privacy and digital rights out the window. We hope the answer will be no.