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How Apple’s plan to go after child abuse it could affect you – Guide
The tech giant has developed technology to combat child exploitation and abuse, but advocates fear it could harm people’s privacy. Here’s why.
Apple has long touted itself as one of the only technology companies that truly cares about user privacy or security. But a new technology designed to help an iPhone, iPad or Mac computer detect images of child exploitation stored on those devices has sparked a heated debate over the truth behind Apple’s promises.
On August 5, Apple announced a new feature being integrated into upcoming IOS 15, iPad OS 15, WatchOS 8, and MacOS Monterey software updates designed to detect if people have child exploitation images or videos stored on their devices. It does this by converting images into unique bits of code, known as hashes, based on what the images represent. The hashes are then checked against a database of known child exploitation content managed by the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children. If a certain number of matches is found, Apple will be alerted and may investigate further. Apple has not said when the software will be released, although on Sept. 3 it announced a delay in making improvements and resolving privacy issues.
Why is Apple doing this now?
The tech giant said it has been trying for some time to find a way to help stop child exploitation. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 65 million material reports last year. Apple said that’s how it is up of the 401 reports from 20 years ago.
“We also know that the 65 million files reported are just a small fraction of what’s in circulation,” said the head of Thorn, a non-profit organization fighting child exploitation that supports Apple’s efforts. She added that US law requires technology companies to report exploratory material if they find it, but does not require them to look for it.
Other companies actively seek out these photos and videos. Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google (and their YouTube subsidiary) use various technologies to scan their systems for potentially illegal uploads.
In the past, Apple has followed a similar approach, telling 9to5Mac it has been scanning iCloud emails and some other files since at least 2019.
What makes Apple’s new system unique is that it’s designed to scan our devices, rather than the information stored on the company’s servers.
The hash scanning system will only be applied to photos stored in the iCloud Photo Library, which is a photo sync system built into Apple devices. It does not hash images and videos stored in a photo’s app. phone, tablet, or computer that is not using the iCloud Photo Library. So, in some ways, people can choose not to use Apple’s iCloud photo sync services.
Can this system be abused?
The question is not whether Apple should do what it can to combat child exploitation. It is whether the company should use this method.
The slippery slope that privacy experts have climbed is whether Apple’s tools could be turned into non-dissident surveillance technology. Imagine if the Chinese government could somehow secretly add data corresponding to the famous Man Photo tank from the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square to Apple’s child exploitative content system.
Apple said it designed features to prevent that from happening. The system does not scan photos, for example – it checks for matches between hash codes. The hash database is also stored in the phone, not an Internet database. Apple noted that because checks take place on the device, security researchers can more easily audit how it works.
“If you look at any other cloud service, they’re currently scanning photos, looking at every photo in the cloud and analyzing them; we wanted to be able to locate these photos in the cloud without looking at people’s photos,” said Apple’s head of software engineering Craig Federighi in an August 13 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “This isn’t doing an analysis for ‘Did you have a picture of your kid in the bathtub?’ Or, for that matter, ‘Did you have a picture of any other type of pornography?’ This is literally just matching the exact fingerprints of specific known child pornography images. ”
The company also said that there are “various levels of auditability.” One way is that Apple plans to publish a hash, or uniquely identifiable code, to its online database each time it’s updated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Apple said the hash can only be generated with the help of at least two separate child safety organizations, and security experts will be able to identify any changes, should they occur. Child safety organizations will also be able to audit Apple’s systems, the company said.
Is Apple digging through my photos?
We’ve all seen some version of this: the baby picture in the bathtub. My parents had a bit of me, I have a few of my kids, and it was even a recurring joke in Dreamworks’ 2017 animated comedy The Boss Baby.
Apple says these images shouldn’t stumble up your system. Because Apple’s program converts our photos to these hash codes and then checks them against a known database of child exploitation videos and photos, the company isn’t really digitizing our stuff. The company said the probability of a false positive is less than one in a trillion a year.
“In addition, whenever an account is flagged by the system, Apple conducts human analysis before filing a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Apple wrote on its website. “As a result, system errors or attacks will not cause innocent people to be reported to NCMEC.”
Is Apple reading my texts?
Apple is not applying its child abuse detection system to our text messages. This, effectively, is a separate system.
On iPhones connected to children’s iCloud accounts, the messaging app – which handles SMS and iMessage – will “analyze image attachments” from messages sent or received “to determine if a photo is sexually explicit.” If so, Apple will alert children that they are about to upload or view an explicit image. At this point, the image will be blurry and the child will be presented with a link to resources on how to find this type of image. Children can still see the image and, if that happens, parents will be alerted.
“O feature was designed so that Apple does not have access to messages,” said Apple.
Since this system is only looking for sexually explicit images, as opposed to iCloud’s Photos setup, which checks a known database of child abuse images, it’s likely that Apple’s text system will flag something like your kids’ cool photos in a bathtub. But Apple said that this system will only work with phones who are logged in with a child’s iCloud account and are intended to help protect iPhone users from being unexpectedly exposed to explicit images.
What does Apple say?
Apple claims that its system is built with privacy in mind, with safeguards to prevent the company from knowing the contents of our photo libraries and to minimize the risk of misuse.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published on Aug. 13, Apple’s Federighi attributed much of the confusion to poor communication.
“It’s really clear that a lot of messages were very badly confused in terms of how things were understood,” Federighi said in his interview. “We would have liked this to have been a little clearer to everyone, because we feel very positive and strongly about what we are doing.”
He also tried to argue that scanning feature it’s different from Apple’s other plans to alert kids when they’re sending or receiving explicit images in the company’s Messaging app for SMS or iMessage. In this case, Apple said, it is focused on educating parents and children, not scanning those images into its child abuse image database.
Still, despite Apple’s insistence that its software is designed to protect privacy, the company announced a postponement on Sept. 3, saying it plans to set aside extra time to “make improvements” based on the feedback received. The company did not say when its new expected release date would be.
From the news www.cnet.com
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