Touring the digital through type

Month: August 2021

The Problems and Complications of Apple Monitoring for Child Sexual Abuse Material in iCloud Photos

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Photo by Mateusz Dach on Pexels.com

On August 5, 2021, Apple announced that it would soon begin conducting pervasive surveillance of the devices that it sells in a stated intent to expand protections for children. The company announced three new features. The first will monitor for children sending or receiving sexually explicit images using the Messages application. The second will monitor for the presence of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) in iCloud Photos. The third will monitor for searches pertaining to CSAM. These features are planned to be activated in the United States in the next versions of Apple’s operating systems which will ship to end-users in the fall of 2021.

In this post I focus exclusively on the surveillance of iCloud Photos for CSAM content. I begin with a background of Apple’s efforts to monitor for CSAM content on their services before providing a description of the newly announced CSAM surveillance system. I then turn to outline some problems, complications, and concerns with this new child safety feature. In particular, I discuss the challenges facing Apple in finding reputable child safety organizations with whom to partner, the potential ability to region-shift to avoid the surveillance, the prospect of the surveillance system leading to ongoing harms towards CSAM survivors, the likelihood that Apple will expand the content which is subject to the company’s surveillance infrastructure, and the weaponization of the CSAM surveillance infrastructure against journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, opposition politicians, and political dissidents. I conclude with a broader discussion of the problems associated with Apple’s new CSAM surveillance infrastructure.

A previous post focused on the surveillance children’s messages to monitor for sexually explicit photos. Future posts will address the third child safety feature that Apple has announced, as well as the broader implications of Apple’s child safety initiatives.

Background to Apple Monitoring for CSAM

Apple has previously worked with law enforcement agencies to combat CSAM though the full contours of that assistance are largely hidden from the public. In May 2019, Mac Observer noted that the company had modified their privacy policy to read, “[w]e may also use your personal information for account and network security purposes, including in order to protect our services for the benefit of all our users, and pre-screening or scanning uploaded content for potentially illegal content, including child sexual exploitation material” (emphasis not in original). Per Forbes, Apple places email messages under surveillance when they are routed through its systems. Mail is scanned and if CSAM content is detected then Apple automatically prevents the email from reaching its recipient and assigns an employee to confirm the CSAM content of the message. If the employee confirms the existence of CSAM content the company subsequently provides subscriber information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) or a relevant government agency.1

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Apple’s Monitoring of Children’s Communications Content Puts Children and Adults at Risk

pexels-photo-193004.jpeg
Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.com

On August 5, 2021, Apple announced that it would soon begin conducting pervasive surveillance of devices that they sell with a stated intent of expanding protections for children. The company announced three new features. The first will monitor for children sending or receiving sexually explicit images over the Messages application, the second will monitor for the reception or collection of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), and the third will monitor for searches pertaining to CSAM. These features are planned to be activated in the next versions of Apple’s mobile and desktop operating systems which will ship to end-users in the fall of 2021.

In this post I focus exclusively on the surveillance of children’s messages to detect whether they are receiving or sending sexually explicit images. I begin with a short discussion of how Apple has described this system and spell out the rationales for it, and then proceed to outline some early concerns with how this feature might negatively affect children and adults alike. Future posts will address the second and third child safety features that Apple has announced, as well as broader problems associated with Apple’s unilateral decision to expand surveillance on its devices.

Sexually Explicit Image Surveillance in Messages

Apple currently lets families share access to Apple services and cloud storage using Family Sharing. The organizer of the Family Sharing plan can utilize a number of parental controls to restrict the activities that children who are included in a Family Sharing plan can perform. Children, for Apple, include individuals who are under 18 years of age.

Upon the installation of Apple’s forthcoming mobile and desktop operating systems, children’s communications over Apple’s Messages application can be analyzed to assess if the content of the communications include sexually explicit images, if this analysis feature is enabled in Family Sharing. Apple’s analysis of images will occur on-device and Apple will not be notified of whether an image is sexually explicit. Should an image be detected it will initially be blurred out, and if a child wants to see the image they must proceed through either one or two prompts, depending on their age and how their parents have configured the parental management settings.

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