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The privacy debate is personal to Tim Cook

The conference runs through June 6. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he developed his “moral sense” growing up in rural Alabama in the '60s and '70s – a period of incredible social upheaval.

Today, at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Cook keeps in his office photos of two men who pushed the South to change: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin L. King Jr. In recent years, Cook appears to have been inspired by Kennedy and King as he pushed for the South to change again, this time on the issue of gay rights.

Cook, who publicly acknowledged he was gay two years ago, has advocated for changing laws in states such as Alabama, where employees can be fired for being gay. He also has criticized states with “religious freedom” laws that seemed designed to sanction some forms of discrimination.

The line connecting Cook’s youth with his current stance on gay rights seems obvious – especially to some of the people who know Cook. Yet Cook dismisses the idea that his upbringing influenced his views on privacy, which grabbed headlines earlier this year when Apple refused to help the FBI crack the passcode-locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

In an exclusive interview with The Post’s Jena McGregor, Cook insisted there were other sources for his views on privacy:

McGregor: You’ve talked about privacy being part of Apple’s values. How personal is it for you? You’re known as a very private person. You grew up gay in a red state. Did those early years have an impact on how you lead Apple and on your public stances about privacy?

Cook: "Undoubtedly, your childhood and your upbringing is a constant across your life in terms of the things you learn and your point of view.

But in terms of privacy, I wouldn’t link the two. There’s a broader thing in play. Privacy, in my point of view, is a civil liberty that our Founding Fathers thought of a long time ago, and concluded it was an essential part of what it was to be an American. Sort of on the level, if you will, with freedom of speech, freedom of the press. The other thing is how all this data sits out there in different places. I do worry about people not really understanding deeply about what kinds of things are out there about them. So it’s really both of those — not really the growing up in the South."

Apple’s stance on privacy did not begin with Cook. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was an ardent believer in the need for his company’s products to be private and safe.

But Cook, since taking over as CEO in 2011, has made an especially forceful case about the need for privacy. And since the dispute with the FBI over the unlocking of a killer's smartphone, Cook has pushed the fight in interviews and speeches, not content to allow Apple’s attorneys and spokesmen to handle the message.

Perhaps Cook really doesn’t believe that growing up gay in the small town Deep South affected his current views. Maybe he’s worried that acknowledging the personal connection will cheapen the privacy message.

But under Cook, Apple no longer talks about privacy as some bonus feature of its devices. Privacy is elevated to something more intrinsic, more personal: A right.