Critics ask Apple in open letter to stop controversial photo scanning plan

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Privacy experts, academics, researchers, civil rights groups and consumers are asking Apple in an open letter to stop its plans to check photos on iOS devices for child abuse.

According to the authors of the letter, this gives Apple a back door and puts the privacy of all its customers at risk. In particular, there are fears that Apple will yield to pressure from certain regimes to use the software for other purposes.

Researcher Nadim Kobeissi points out in the letter that Apple’s Facetime does not work in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan because the laws in these countries do not allow encrypted audio conversations. What if these countries ask Apple to scan messages looking for homosexuality or dissent towards the monarchy?

The American civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation is also concerned. “Apple’s plans will make it possible to conduct such screenings. Moreover, authoritarian regimes will be able to ask for satire to be detected.” The organization also exposes another problem. “The database that Apple will use is maintained by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. This organization is not monitored by anyone, even though civil rights activists have already requested it.”

Finally, the authors also ask questions about which definitions Apple uses to label the images as child abuse. “For one, some images are child abuse, for someone else it may be different.”

Yesterday it was announced that Apple will add a functionality to iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 to check photos that American users put on iCloud for child abuse. This is done using hashes. In a technical document, the company describes how the detection works. According to Apple, there is a one in a trillion chance of false positives per account.

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