Apple today said it will refuse any government demands to expand its new photo-scanning technology beyond the current plan of using it only to detect CSAM (child sexual abuse material).
Apple has faced days of criticism from security experts, privacy advocates, and privacy-minded users over the plan it announced Thursday, in which iPhones and other Apple devices will scan photos before they are uploaded to iCloud. Many critics pointed out that once the technology is on consumer devices, it won’t be difficult for Apple to expand it beyond the detection of CSAM in response to government demands for broader surveillance. We covered how the program will work in detail in an article Thursday night.
Governments have been pressuring Apple to install backdoors into its end-to-end encryption system for years, and Apple acknowledged that governments are likely to make the exact demands that security experts and privacy advocates have been warning about. In a FAQ released today with the title, “Expanded Protections for Children,” there is a question that asks, “Could governments force Apple to add non-CSAM images to the hash list?”
Apple answers the question as follows:
Apple will refuse any such demands. Apple’s CSAM detection capability is built solely to detect known CSAM images stored in iCloud Photos that have been identified by experts at NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) and other child safety groups. 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. Let us be clear, this technology is limited to detecting CSAM stored in iCloud and we will not accede to any government’s request to expand it. Furthermore, Apple conducts human review before making a report to NCMEC. In a case where the system flags photos that do not match known CSAM images, the account would not be disabled and no report would be filed to NCMEC.
None of this means that Apple lacks the ability to expand the technology’s uses, of course. Answering the question of whether its photo-scanning system can be used to detect things other than CSAM, Apple said that it “is designed to prevent that from happening.”
“CSAM detection for iCloud Photos is built so that the system only works with CSAM image hashes provided by NCMEC and other child safety organizations,” Apple said. “There is no automated reporting to law enforcement, and Apple conducts human review before making a report to NCMEC. As a result, the system is only designed to report photos that are known CSAM in iCloud Photos.”
Apple says it won’t inject other photos into database
But the system’s current design doesn’t prevent it from being redesigned and used for other purposes in the future. The new photo-scanning technology itself is a major change for a company that has used privacy as a selling point for years and calls privacy a “fundamental human right.”
Apple said the new system will be rolled out later this year in updates to iOS 15, iPadOS 15, watchOS 8, and macOS Monterey, and will initially be deployed in the US only. The current plan is for Apple devices to scan user photos and report those that match a database of known CSAM image hashes. The Apple FAQ implicitly acknowledges that hashes of other types of images could be added to the list, but the document says Apple won’t do that.
“Can non-CSAM images be ‘injected’ into the system to flag accounts for things other than CSAM? Our process is designed to prevent that from happening,” Apple wrote. “The set of image hashes used for matching are from known, existing images of CSAM that have been acquired and validated by child safety organizations. Apple does not add to the set of known CSAM image hashes.”
Apple also said the new “feature only impacts users who have chosen to use iCloud Photos to store their photos. It does not impact users who have not chosen to use iCloud Photos.” Apple’s FAQ didn’t say how many people use iCloud Photos, but it is a widely used feature. There are over 1 billion iPhones actively used worldwide, and a 2018 estimate by Barclays analysts found that iCloud (including all services, not just iCloud Photos) had 850 million users.
Apple memo called privacy advocates “screeching voices”
Apple does not seem to have anticipated the level of criticism its decision to scan user photos would receive. On Thursday night, Apple distributed an internal memo that acknowledged criticism but dismissed it as “screeching voices of the minority.”
That portion of the memo was written by NCMEC Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships Marita Rodriguez. “I know it’s been a long day and that many of you probably haven’t slept in 24 hours. We know that the days to come will be filled with the screeching voices of the minority. Our voices will be louder. Our commitment to lift up kids who have lived through the most unimaginable abuse and victimizations will be stronger,” Rodriguez wrote.
The memo was obtained and published by 9to5Mac. The Apple-written portion of the memo said, “We’ve seen many positive responses today. We know some people have misunderstandings, and more than a few are worried about the implications, but we will continue to explain and detail the features so people understand what we’ve built.”
Open letter warns of expanding surveillance uses
Over 6,000 people signed an open letter urging Apple to reverse course, saying, “Apple’s current path threatens to undermine decades of work by technologists, academics and policy advocates towards strong privacy-preserving measures being the norm across a majority of consumer electronic devices and use cases.”
The letter quoted several security experts, including researcher Nadim Kobeissi, who wrote, “Reminder: Apple sells iPhones without FaceTime in Saudi Arabia, because local regulation prohibits encrypted phone calls. That’s just one example of many where Apple’s bent to local pressure. What happens when local regulation mandates that messages be scanned for homosexuality?”
The letter also quotes Johns Hopkins University cryptography professor Matthew Green, who told Wired, “The pressure is going to come from the UK, from the US, from India, from China. I’m terrified about what that’s going to look like. Why would Apple want to tell the world, ‘Hey, we’ve got this tool’?”