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.
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.
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