Apple’s fight against child abuse sparks data privacy concerns

Apple is deploying new technology to curb the spread of child abuse images that have raised data privacy concerns.

Apple plans to introduce new child safety features to limit the distribution of child sexual abuse material, the company said Aug. Announcement.

First, Apple will enable its Messages app to use on-device machine learning to warn kids and parents monitoring iOS usage about sensitive content, though Apple said private communications by the company will be unreadable. Second, iOS and iPadOS will use cryptography applications to detect collections of child abuse images in iCloud Photos and alert law enforcement. Third, Siri and Apple Search will “intervene” when a user tries to search for child abuse content. According to Apple, the new features will come in updates to iOS 15, iPadOS 15, watchOS 8, and macOS Monterey later this year. Apple has not said whether users can easily opt out of the new features.

Data privacy at risk

Since Apple made the announcement, Data Privacy experts like Matthew Greene, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, have sounded alarm bells.

On Twitter and in a New York Times essay, Greene acknowledged that the tools are part of an effort to curb the spread of child abuse images, but stressed that they could also open the door to increased surveillance of personal data.

Steven Murdoch, professor of security engineering at University College London, condemned the new features, tweet that there is a “risk of extending Apple’s child abuse image detection system to other content, regardless of what Apple would like to happen.”

Dan Clarke, president of products and solutions at technology and data privacy compliance firm IntraEdge, also sees the tools as a double-edged sword, though he’s less concerned about Apple’s policing and more about how the tools could be manipulated by others.

He said he believes Apple has managed to strike a “pretty good balance between a noble cause and privacy”.

“The way the feature works, as I understand it, is that it only searches for known images, images tagged by a human to say, ‘That’s insulting,'” Clarke said. “You don’t want to have a million photos of your grandchild innocently bathing in the bath that somehow triggers this. So they tried to address it.”

Clarke is concerned about how the tools themselves can be misused by users.

Looks like they’ve put in all the right restrictions. But what about a bad actor? What about someone else who decides to use this technology?

Dan ClarkePresident of Products and Solutions, IntraEdge

“Looks like they’ve put in the right restrictions. But what about a bad actor? And anyone else who decides to use this technology?” Clarke said. “That’s where I think you start to get real concerns being brought up.”

On its website, Apple has included documents explaining the efforts and technology used to implement it, including data privacy and security measures the company takes. One of the methods used to protect the privacy of user data is to search only for known child abuse images – information provided by child safety organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.


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  • China plans to draft new laws on monopolies, technological innovation and national security, according to a document released Wednesday by China’s leadership, Reuters said. China has been increasingly cracking down on its own tech giants, including Alibaba and recently Didi, over alleged monopolistic behavior and concerns about data privacy.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer on big tech and federal regulation. Before joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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