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Apple To Scan US iPhones For Images Of Child Sexual Abuse

Apple has unveiled plans to scan iPhones in the United States for images of child sexual abuse.

Gatekeepers News reports that Apple plans to scan U.S. iPhones for images of child sexual abuse has garnered mixed reactions from child protection groups and privacy advocates.

As Apple receives applause from child protection groups, the opposite was the case for some security researchers who raised concern that the system could be misused, including by governments looking to surveil their citizens.

The tool called the “neuralMatch” which is designed to detect known images of child sexual abuse, will scan images before they are uploaded to iCloud.

If it finds a match, the image will be reviewed by a human. If child pornography is confirmed, the user’s account will be disabled and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will be notified.

Meanwhile, Apple plans to separately scan users’ encrypted messages for sexually explicit content as a child safety measure, which also alarmed privacy advocates.

Apple’s neuralMatch will only flag images that are already in the center’s database of known child pornography. Parents who innocently snap photos of their child in the bath presumably need not worry.

However, researchers say the matching tool which doesn’t “see” such images, just mathematical “fingerprints” the ones that represent them — could be put to more nefarious purposes.

A top cryptography researcher at Johns Hopkins University, Matthew Green has warned that the system could be used to frame innocent people by sending them seemingly harmless images designed to trigger matches for child pornography, adding that it could fool Apple’s algorithm and alert law enforcement.

Green while speaking of the ability to trick such systems said, “Researchers have been able to do this pretty easily.” He also cited government surveillance of dissidents or protesters.

The Researcher asked, “What happens when the Chinese government says, ‘Here is a list of files that we want you to scan for…

“Does Apple say no? I hope they say no, but their technology won’t say no.”

Apple which has been under pressure to allow for increased surveillance of encrypted data has been relying on tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and others to share digital fingerprints of known child sexual abuse images to scan user files stored in its iCloud service, which is not as securely encrypted as its on-device data, for child pornography.

However, coming up with the new security measures required the tech company to perform a delicate balancing act between cracking down on the exploitation of children and keeping its high-profile commitment to protecting the privacy of its users.

A dejected Electronic Frontier Foundation, the online civil liberties pioneer, described Apple’s compromise on privacy protections as “a shocking about-face for users who have relied on the company’s leadership in privacy and security.”

Meanwhile, the computer scientist who more than a decade ago invented PhotoDNA, the technology used by law enforcement to identify child pornography online, acknowledged the potential for abuse of Apple’s system but said it was far outweighed by the imperative of battling child sexual abuse.

A researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, Hany Farid said, “Is it possible? Of course. But is it something that I’m concerned about? No.”

Farid argued that plenty of other programs designed to secure devices from various threats haven’t seen “this type of mission creep.” For example, WhatsApp provides users with end-to-end encryption to protect their privacy but also employs a system for detecting malware and warns users not to click on harmful links.

Apple was one of the first major companies to embrace “end-to-end” encryption, in which messages are scrambled so that only their senders and recipients can read them.

However, law enforcement has long pressured the tech company for access to that information to investigate crimes such as terrorism or child sexual exploitation.

Apple said the latest changes will roll out this year as part of updates to its operating software for iPhones, Macs, and Apple Watches.

Meanwhile, the president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, John Clark while supporting the development in a statement said, “Apple’s expanded protection for children is a game-changer.

“With so many people using Apple products, these new safety measures have lifesaving potential for children.”

The CEO of Thorn, Julia Cordua said Apple’s technology balances “the need for privacy with digital safety for children.”

Thorn which is a nonprofit organisation founded by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher uses technology to help protect children from sexual abuse by identifying victims and working with tech platforms.

The Washington-based nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology while criticising the move called on Apple to abandon the changes, which it said effectively destroy the company’s guarantee of “end-to-end encryption.”

It added that scanning of messages for sexually explicit content on phones or computers effectively breaks the security.

According to Apple, parents will have to enroll their child’s phone to receive the warnings about sexually explicit images on their children’s devices, while kids over 13 can unenroll, which means parents of teenagers won’t get notifications.

The Tech giant added that neither feature would compromise the security of private communications or notify police.

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