Apple’s new plan to combat child abuse material

Trigger warning: mentions of child sexual abuse  

Earlier this month, Apple unveiled a new system that will scan iPhone and iPad on-device images to identify child sexual abuse material (CSAM), before the images are uploaded to iCloud. Images that are flagged will then be reported to Apple’s moderators, who will then turn the images over to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) after confirming the presence of CSAM. 

The system is unable to determine anything else about a photo, and only if it matches exactly to known CSAM images. That is, it’s not detecting CSAM context within images in the same way a human or AI algorithms might, but rather only matching exact pictures to exact known CSAM images. That means this system won’t detect CSAM content that is not in NCMEC’s database, and that is part of the trade-off. 

If the number of images that are flagged exceeds a threshold, the images can then be decrypted and reported to Apple’s moderators. 

Why is the plan controversial? 

Privacy. Apple has a long history of protecting user privacy. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, once said, “privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty, and something that is unique to America. This is like freedom of speech and freedom of the press”. 

Furthermore, critics cite that the move could turn into other abuses, government surveillance of dissidents or protesters. Cryptography researcher at Johns Hopkins University, Matthew Green, speaking to AP, gave an example, “what happens when the Chinese government says; ‘here is a list of files that we want you to scan for’. Does Apple say no? I hope they say no, but their technology won’t say no.” Apple has said it “will refuse any such demands” and went on to tout its public history of refusing government requests: “we have faced demands to build and deploy government-mandated changes that degrade the privacy of users before, and have steadfastly refused those demands. We will continue to refuse them in the future”.

Do other companies have something similar? 

Yes, Google and Dropbox are some of the more well-known companies. What makes Apple different from these companies is its strong history of defending user privacy, and this recent announcement has prompted critics to question Apple. Since the announcement, Apple has had to respond to the critiques by further clarifying its technology (what we spoke about in the second paragraph), and its position on privacy.

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