Police officers, child protection groups, abuse survivors and some computer scientists praised the steps. In statements from Apple, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children called it a “game changer,” while David Forsyth, chairman of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the technology would catch children and that “Harmless users should experience minimal to no loss of privacy”.
But other computer scientists as well as data protection groups and civil rights lawyers immediately condemned the act.
Other tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft also scan users’ photos to look for child sexual abuse, but they only do so on images that are on the company’s computer servers. In Apple’s case, much of the scanning takes place directly on users’ iPhones. (Apple said it would scan photos that users chose to upload to its iCloud storage service, but the scanning is still done on the phone.)
For many technologists, Apple has opened a Pandora’s box. The tool would be the first technology built into a phone’s operating system that can view a person’s private information and report it to law enforcement agencies. Privacy groups and security experts fear that governments looking for criminals, adversaries, or other targets could find many ways to use such a system.
“As we understand it now, I’m not so concerned that Apple’s specific implementation will be abused,” said Alex Stamos, a Stanford University researcher who previously led Facebook’s cybersecurity efforts. “The problem is that they have now opened the door to a type of surveillance that has never been open before.”
If the governments had previously asked Apple to analyze people’s photos, the company could have responded that it couldn’t. Now that it has developed a system that can do this, Apple has to argue that it doesn’t.
“I think Apple has clearly tried to do this as responsibly as possible, but the fact that they are doing it at all is the problem,” said Ms. Galperin. “Once you have created a system that can be aligned with any database, you will be prompted to align the system with a database.”