Apple's new tool against child exploitation alarms privacy advocates 

in August 25th, 2021

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Apple has always publicly championed consumer privacy. Even in situations as difficult as the 2016 San Bernardino shooting when the FBI wanted access to the shooter’s iPhone, Apple has been cautious. The pitfalls of such protections are clear according to annual reports by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which show how often tech companies shared cases of child pornography on their products. In 2020, Facebook reported over 20.3 million cases while Apple hardly made 300.

After years of criticism for their low reporting, it’s unsurprising that Apple was thrilled to announce their new plan to root out photos of child sexual abuse from users’ iPhones and iPads. With support from child safety groups and activists (such as actor Ashton Kutcher), Apple rolled out the tool. Here’s how it works:

  • First, the software scans your iPhone. If it detects any potential images of child sexual abuse, those images are then encoded into a set of numbers.
  • Then those numbers are run against known images of child abuse in NCMEC’s database. If 30 or more encoded images match, Apple sends the content to an employee for review.
  • If the employee confirms abuse in the photo, Apple forwards the information to authorities and locks the user’s account.

But cyber security experts are far from thrilled, calling this a huge invasion of privacy because it scans images directly on the device (as opposed to only images intentionally shared such as on Facebook). While Apple claims users will have some control by disabling iCloud, critics worry the tool can still be abused to scan any images on the device. Some are further concerned with what this tool means for criminal investigations, even if Apple says it won’t bow to authorities. In fact, WhatsApp’s head of messaging tweeted his opposition and shared how WhatsApp will not adopt a similar system. And, over 8,000 security experts, researchers, professors, and more signed an open call asking Apple to halt the launch of this tool this Fall. Concerned Apple consumers are welcome to sign the letter as well.

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