Apple tries to ease CSAM photo scanning concerns

Apple is trying to thread a delicate needle.

The company's plan to scan devices for child abuse imagery (CSAM) later this year seems to be related to offering end-to-end encryption in services like Messages and iCloud photos.

Messages is e2e encrypted right now, but iCloud Photos is not, and Apple appears to want to change that. Doing so would offer end-to-end encryption across most of its services, and would fulfill Apple's promises of offering watertight privacy to its users.

But end-to-end encryption of iCloud photos has child safety orgs and law enforcement concerned. CSAM is a big and growing problem, and Apple stands alone among the big tech companies in not actively looking for it. Facebook, for example, made more than 20 million reports of CSAM in 2020, while Apple reported just 265. Indeed, the UK and EU are advancing legislation to compel online service providers to actively seek out CSAM.

In light of that, Apple has come up with a clever scheme that seems to preserve privacy while actively looking for CSAM in photos that are put online.

Instead of scanning for CSAM on its servers -- as most online photo services routinely do -- Apple has opted to look for CSAM on devices instead.

Without going into technical details (see our post and Apple's FAQ for this), Apple's proposed system is designed to protect the privacy of most users (except the ones with significant caches of CSAM) while offering a solution to law enforcement.

The obvious answer is for Apple to scan only photos that are uploaded to its servers, but the company can't do that if the photos are e2e encrypted, so the analysis must be performed on the device before the photos are uploaded.

Apple is treading a careful path and its cleverness here is to be applauded, but the plan still gives me the willies.

I feel that my iPhone should be entirely private, and not subject to routine and ongoing searches by software, even though I find CSAM abhorrent.

I want and expect my device to be private -- entirely and completely. I do not want my iPhone to spy on me -- period. Knowing that my device is spying on me erodes my trust in it. The company is trying to be too clever by half, and that in offering a clever solution to law enforcement, its betraying its own customers' trust.

-- Leander Kahney, EIC.

Apple has published a new FAQ on its plan to scan user photos for child abuse imagery (CSAM) in an effort to combat the growing concerns. The document aims to provide “more clarity and transparency,” Apple said, after noting that “many stakeholders including privacy organizations and child safety organizations have expressed their support” for the move.

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One more thing ...

"Privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty." -- Tim Cook.

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