Apple’s Proposed Phone-Scanning Child Safety Features ‘Invasive, Ineffective, and Dangerous,’ Say Cybersecurity Researchers in New Study

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More than a dozen prominent cybersecurity experts hit out at Apple on Thursday for relying on “dangerous technology” in its controversial plan to detect child sexual abuse images on iPhones (via The New York Times).

Child Safety Feature Purple
The damning criticism came in a new 46-page study by researchers that looked at plans by Apple and the European Union to monitor people’s phones for illicit material, and called the efforts ineffective and dangerous strategies that would embolden government surveillance.

Announced in August, the planned features include client-side (i.e. on-device) scanning of users’ iCloud Photos libraries for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), Communication Safety to warn children and their parents when receiving or sending sexually explicit photos, and expanded CSAM guidance in Siri and Search.

According to the researchers, documents released by the European Union suggest that the bloc’s governing body are seeking a similar program that would scan encrypted phones for both child sexual abuse as well as signs of organized crime and terrorist-related imagery.

“It should be a national-security priority to resist attempts to spy on and influence law-abiding citizens,” said the researchers, who added they were publishing their findings now to inform the European Union of the dangers of its plan.

“The expansion of the surveillance powers of the state really is passing a red line,” said Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge and a member of the group.

Aside from surveillance concerns, the researchers said, their findings indicated that the technology was not effective at identifying images of child sexual abuse. Within days of Apple’s announcement, they said, people had pointed out ways to avoid detection by editing the images slightly.

“It’s allowing scanning of a personal private device without any probable cause for anything illegitimate being done,” added another member of the group, Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at Tufts University. “It’s extraordinarily dangerous. It’s dangerous for business, national security, for public safety and for privacy.”

The cybersecurity researchers said they had begun their study before Apple’s announcement, and were publishing their findings now to inform the European Union of the dangers of its plan.

Apple has faced significant criticism from privacy advocates, security researchers, cryptography experts, academics, politicians, and even employees within the company for its decision to deploy the technology in a future update to iOS 15 and iPadOS 15.

Apple initially endeavored to dispel misunderstandings and reassure users by releasing detailed information, sharing FAQs, various new documents, interviews with company executives, and more in order to allay concerns.

However, when it became clear that this wasn’t having the intended effect, Apple subsequently acknowledged the negative feedback and announced in September a delay to the rollout of the features to give the company time to make “improvements” to the CSAM system, although it’s not clear what they would involve and how they would address concerns.

Apple has also said it would refuse demands by authoritarian governments to expand the image-detection system beyond pictures of children flagged by recognized databases of child sex abuse material, although it has not said that it would pull out of a market rather than obeying a court order.

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