Tech giant Apple recently announced a new feature that will allow it to scan iPhone and iPad photos to detect if they contain sexually explicit imagery involving children, which Apple will report to authorities. However, many privacy experts are worried about the implications of Apple snooping on user content. One expert points out that Apple’s move is well-intentioned, but they should be thinking about one important question: “What will China want them to block?”
Forbes reports that this week Apple announced a new addition to its upcoming iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 firmware for iPhones and iPads. The new feature will allow Apple to scan user photos stored in Apple’s iCloud service and determine if they contain sexually explicit activities involving children.
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In a statement on its website, Apple said: “This will enable Apple to report these instances to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).” NCMEC works as a reporting center for child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and collaborates with multiple law enforcement agencies in the U.S.
Apple claims that the way it detects CSAM is “designed with user privacy in mind,” and it is not directly accessing iCloud users’ photos, but rather utilizing a device-local, hash-based lookup and matching system to cross-reference the hashes of user photos with the hashes of known CSAM. If there is a match between a user’s photos and the CSAM database, Apple manually reviews the issue and will then disable the user’s account before sending a report to NCMEC.
However, many privacy experts are extremely worried about the new system. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted about the issue stating: “No matter how well-intentioned, @Apple
No matter how well-intentioned, @Apple is rolling out mass surveillance to the entire world with this. Make no mistake: if they can scan for kiddie porn today, they can scan for anything tomorrow.
They turned a trillion dollars of devices into iNarcs—*without asking.* https://t.co/wIMWijIjJk
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) August 6, 2021
Alec Muffett, a noted encryption expert and former Facebook security staffer, also expressed his worries over the system, telling Forbes: “How such a feature might be repurposed in an illiberal state is fairly easy to visualize. Apple is performing proactive surveillance on client-purchased devices in order to defend their own interests but in the name of child protection. What will China want them to block?”
Apple CEO Tim Cook waves as he arrives for the Economic Summit held for the China Development Forum in Beijing on March 23, 2019. (Photo by Ng Han Guan / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read NG HAN GUAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Apple has always branded itself as a privacy-focused tech firm, even ridiculing companies like Google with a large billboard at CES which stated: “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.” It seems that may not be the case for much longer.