Our best guess is the company has been under pressure from governments and law enforcement around the world to engage more in government-led efforts to protect children, even though this deployment is only in the United States. Word has it that Apple, far from being the first company to implement such measures, is one of the last of the big firms to do so. Other large companies keep more data in the cloud, where it’s protected only by the company’s encryption keys, making it more readily accessible to analysis and warrants. Also, the engineering effort behind these technologies undoubtedly took years and cost many millions of dollars, so the motivation must have been significant.
There’s no transparency anywhere in this entire system. That’s by design, in order to protect already-exploited children from being further victimized. Politicians and children’s advocates tend to brush off any concerns about how efforts to detect CSAM and identify those receiving or distributing it may have large-scale privacy implications.
Privacy campaigners warn that by allowing such pattern-matching in encrypted photos on iPhones, Apple is opening itself and others to pressure from governments to do the same for other types of content, such as imagery of opposition protests. Companies could refuse, but might face legislative moves to compel it. Disclosures about the thousands apparently targeted by Pegasus spyware from Israel’s NSO have shown plenty of governments are happy to use backdoor mechanisms.
Apple may hope that by co-operating with US authorities in countering one of the most morally vile activities that exploits digital encryption it can fend off legislation forcing it to go further. The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have called on tech companies to include mechanisms that would enable governments — with appropriate legal authority — to gain access to data. The danger is that Apple will simply whet appetites. Some rivals are privately furious, feeling the Cupertino-based company has broken ranks and conceded an important principle.
With plenty of things that now need monitoring by both medical professionals and me alike, things have changed pretty rapidly in my daily life. In typical technology journalist style, I've found a silver lining in the Apple Watch Series 6 making me feel a bit better mentally if not physically.
I can't help thinking that perhaps Apple is missing an ingredient here: to allow customers to choose a different online photo-syncing system from other third-parties, so that customers can choose which company they trust to scan-and-or-hash their photos when storing online. More like the Files app, perhaps.
Thanks for reading.