Rights Groups Urge Apple to Curb Client File Scanning Efforts

Published · Aug 21, 2021

In an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, 90 rights groups have urged the company to reconsider implementing photo-hash scanning in its devices. The letter was published on August 19, 2021.

Earlier that same month, Apple announced its plans to implement a new feature aiming to fight child abuse. The tool will scan users’ cloud storage libraries for flagged images of child pornography, cross-referencing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) databases.

Apple will then forward potential threats to the relevant authorities. The technology uses “hashing” to detect images, so the actual content of photos is not seen.

In the letter to Apple, however, privacy advocates point out that this technology is prone to error, often misidentifying innocent images as offending. There’s also the potential for the use of this technology for less just purposes later on.

A Cluster of Concerns

One concern centers on the parent-child notification system that’ll come with the feature. This will alert parents of the content their child is exposed to through the cloud. While this would normally be helpful, advocates point out it’s based on the assumption that the parent and child share a healthy relationship.

In the case of an abusive parent, this could threaten the child’s right to receive information—particularly if it’s information that the parent finds questionable but is otherwise legal and fair. For instance, LGBT youth in tenuous living situations could be cut off from important resources.

Another concern is expanding the system to look at other materials. Some fear that regimes could pressure Apple to search for content shared by activists and political opponents. It’s already common in some areas for activists to use tools like VPNs to evade persecution.

If these regimes were to use this technology, dissidents would have little protection against having their devices scanned.

In response, Apple promised it won’t expand the technology. But rights groups point out this means little if the framework is already in place.

This is especially so, given that Apple has caved to governmental demands against dissidents before—for example, by pulling apps used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Apple shows little signs of backing down, while opposition to the plans is increasing rapidly. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

Branko Krstic
Branko Krstic

Branko is a round-the-clock tech geek and loving it. His ideal vacation destination is the Akihabara District (or really any place he can take his computer). If there’s a server out there, count on him to find out what it’s made of… and tell you all about it.