Apple last week unveiled a system that will enable it to flag child abuse photos uploaded to iCloud storage in the US and report them to authorities.
The company won praise from child protection advocates for the move. In a statement, John Clark, chief executive of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – a non-profit organization created by congressional mandate – called it a “game changer”.
But the new system, which is now being tested in the US, has been fiercely opposed by privacy advocates who warn that it represents a slippery slope and could be further modified and exploited to censor other types of content on personal devices.
And Apple is not unique in its efforts to get rid of the cloud storage of illegal child pornography. Where other cloud services do the same. Google has been using hashing technology since 2008 to identify illegal images in its services.
Facebook also said in 2019 that it removed 11.6 million images of content related to child nudity and child sexual exploitation in just 3 months.
Apple said its system is an improvement over industry-standard methods because it uses its control of hardware and sophisticated math to learn as little as possible about the photos on a person’s phone or cloud account while still reporting illegal child pornography on its cloud servers.
But privacy advocates see the move as the beginning of a policy change in which Apple could be pressured by foreign governments, for example, to re-use the system to scrap political discourse by requiring Apple to tag images of protests or political tweets.
Skeptics don’t worry about how the system works today nor do they advocate for people who collect known child exploitation images. Rather, they worry about how it may develop in the coming years.
“Make no mistake: If they can look up child porn today, they can look up anything tomorrow,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden wrote in a tweet.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has supported Apple’s policies on encryption and privacy in the past, criticized the move in a blog post, calling it a “back door”, or system created to give governments a way to access encrypted data.
“Apple can explain in detail how its technical implementation will maintain privacy and security in its proposed backdoor, but at the end of the day, even a well-documented and carefully considered backdoor is still a backdoor.”
Apple’s new system has also been criticized by the company’s competitors, including Facebook’s subsidiary WhatsApp, which also uses end-to-end encryption for some of its messages.
“Instead of focusing on making it easier for people to report what content is shared with them, Apple has created software that can erase all private photos on your phone – even photos you haven’t shared with anyone,” WhatsApp president Will Cathcart tweeted.
After privacy has become an essential part of iPhone marketing. Apple has been public about the security architecture of its systems and is one of the most vocal advocates of end-to-end encryption, which means it doesn’t even know the content of messages or other data stored on its servers.
Apple sees the new system as part of its tradition of protecting privacy: a win-win situation that protects user privacy while eliminating illegal content. Apple also claims that the system cannot be redirected to other types of content.
And privacy advocates feel betrayed by Apple, which has been marketing itself as a deep well of your data that will not be shared with anyone, as Apple bought a giant billboard in Las Vegas during an electronics trade fair with the slogan “What happens on your iPhone, It stays on your iPhone.
Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed the “scary effect” of knowing that what’s on your device could be intercepted and reviewed by third parties. Cook said the lack of digital privacy could lead people to censor themselves even if the person using the iPhone did nothing wrong.
“In a world without digital privacy, even if you do nothing wrong but think differently, you start censoring yourself,” Cook said in his 2019 graduation speech at Stanford University.
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