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

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 own similar plans.

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.

Top Rated Comments

Wanted797 Avatar
8 months ago
Good.

If Apple want to promote themselves as Privacy focused. They deserve every bit of criticism for this ridiculous idea.

They brought it on themselves.
Score: 171 Votes (Like | Disagree)
_Spinn_ Avatar
8 months ago

Apple has also said it would refuse ('https://www.macrumors.com/2021/08/09/apple-faq-csam-detection-messages-scanning/') 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.
I just don’t see how Apple thinks this is even feasible. How do they expect to ignore the laws of a local government?

The whole idea of scanning content locally on someone’s phone is a terrible idea that will eventually be abused.
Score: 88 Votes (Like | Disagree)
MathersMahmood Avatar
8 months ago

Good.

If Apple want to promote themselves as Privacy focused. They deserve every bit of criticism for this ridiculous idea.

They brought it on themselves
This. 100% this.
Score: 63 Votes (Like | Disagree)
LV426 Avatar
8 months ago
“Apple has also said it would refuse ('https://www.macrumors.com/2021/08/09/apple-faq-csam-detection-messages-scanning/') demands by authoritarian governments to expand the image-detection system”

Apple cannot refuse such demands if they are written into a nation’s law, so this is a worthless promise. The UK government has the power (since 2016) to compel Apple – amongst others – to provide technical means of obtaining the information they want. But, worse than that, Apple are not permitted to divulge the fact that any such compulsion order has been made. They must, by law, keep those measures secret. It’s all very very Big Brother.
Score: 58 Votes (Like | Disagree)
iGobbleoff Avatar
8 months ago

lot of confusion/scare mongering here, they are not scanning phones. They are looking at photos that are on Apple servers. How can anyone object to this unless you have something to hide, why would you object when it helps children?
Because it’s the beginning of a slippery slope of scanning your device for anything else that some group can think of. Phones are now nothing but trackers for big tech and governments to abuse.
Score: 54 Votes (Like | Disagree)
H2SO4 Avatar
8 months ago

lot of confusion/scare mongering here, they are not scanning phones. They are looking at photos that are on Apple servers. How can anyone object to this unless you have something to hide, why would you object when it helps children?
Are you sure?;
Announced in August ('https://www.macrumors.com/2021/08/05/apple-new-child-safety-features/'), 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.
Score: 45 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Related Stories

apple csam flow chart

Apple Addresses CSAM Detection Concerns, Will Consider Expanding System on Per-Country Basis

Friday August 6, 2021 10:25 am PDT by
Apple this week announced that, starting later this year with iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, the company will be able to detect known Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) images stored in iCloud Photos, enabling Apple to report these instances to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a non-profit organization that works in collaboration with law enforcement agencies across the United...
Child Safety Feature Blue

Apple Says NeuralHash Tech Impacted by 'Hash Collisions' Is Not the Version Used for CSAM Detection

Wednesday August 18, 2021 1:13 pm PDT by
Developer Asuhariet Yvgar this morning said that he had reverse-engineered the NeuralHash algorithm that Apple is using to detect Child Sexual Abuse Materials (CSAM) in iCloud Photos, posting evidence on GitHub and details on Reddit. Yvgar said that he reverse-engineered the NeuralHash algorithm from iOS 14.3, where the code was hidden, and he rebuilt it in Python. After he uploaded his...
Child Safety Feature yellow

Global Coalition of Policy Groups Urges Apple to Abandon 'Plan to Build Surveillance Capabilities into iPhones'

Thursday August 19, 2021 1:23 am PDT by
An international coalition of more than 90 policy and rights groups published an open letter on Thursday urging Apple to abandon its plans to "build surveillance capabilities into iPhones, iPads, and other products" – a reference to the company's intention to scan users' iCloud photo libraries for images of child sex abuse (via Reuters). "Though these capabilities are intended to protect...
european parliament

EU Provisionally Agrees on Law That Would Force Apple to Allow Alternative App Stores, Sideloading, and iMessage Interoperability

Friday March 25, 2022 4:46 am PDT by
European lawmakers have provisionally agreed upon a new law that would force Apple to allow user access to third-party app stores and permit the sideloading of apps on iPhones and iPads, among other sweeping changes designed to make the digital sector fairer and more competitive. The European Council and European Parliament said on Friday they had reached a political agreement on the...
apple privacy

University Researchers Who Built a CSAM Scanning System Urge Apple to Not Use the 'Dangerous' Technology

Friday August 20, 2021 5:48 am PDT by
Respected university researchers are sounding the alarm bells over the technology behind Apple's plans to scan iPhone users' photo libraries for CSAM, or child sexual abuse material, calling the technology "dangerous." Jonanath Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, as well as Anunay Kulshrestha, a researcher at Princeton University...
eff apple park plane 1

EFF Flew a Banner Over Apple Park During Last Apple Event to Protest CSAM Plans

Friday September 24, 2021 2:06 am PDT by
In protest of the company's now delayed CSAM detection plans, the EFF, which has been vocal about Apple's child safety features plans in the past, flew a banner over Apple Park during the iPhone 13 event earlier this month with a message for the Cupertino tech giant. During Apple's fully-digital "California streaming" event on September 14, which included no physical audience attendance in...
Child Safety Feature Blue

Apple Delays Rollout of Controversial Child Safety Features to Make Improvements

Friday September 3, 2021 6:07 am PDT by
Apple has delayed the rollout of the Child Safety Features that it announced last month following negative feedback, the company has today announced. The planned features include scanning 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...
eff logo lockup cleaned

EFF Pressures Apple to Completely Abandon Controversial Child Safety Features

Monday September 6, 2021 3:18 am PDT by
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has said it is "pleased" with Apple's decision to delay the launch of of its controversial child safety features, but now it wants Apple to go further and completely abandon the rollout. Apple on Friday said it was delaying the planned features to "take additional time over the coming months to collect input and making improvements," following negative...

Popular Stories

iPhone 14 Pro Purple Front and Back MacRumors Exclusive

iPhone 14 Pro Renders Highlight Multiple Design Changes

Wednesday May 25, 2022 8:56 am PDT by
Leaker Jon Prosser today shared ostensibly accurate renders of the iPhone 14 Pro, providing the most accurate look yet at what the device could look like when it launches later this year. In the latest video on YouTube channel Front Page Tech, Prosser revealed renders of the iPhone 14 Pro made by Apple concept graphic designer Ian Zelbo, highlighting a range of specific design changes...
iPhone 13 Always On Feature

iPhone 14 Pro Screen Refresh Rate Upgrade Could Allow for Always-On Display

Tuesday May 24, 2022 7:23 am PDT by
Last year's iPhone 13 Pro models were the first of Apple's smartphones to come with 120Hz ProMotion displays, and while the two iPhone 14 Pro models will continue to feature the technology, their screens could well boast expanded refresh rate variability this time round. To bring ProMotion displays to the ‌iPhone 13 Pro models‌, Apple adopted LTPO panel technology with variable refresh...
iPad Pro USB C Feature Coral

Deals: Apple's iPad Pro Reaches Up to $449 Off in Amazon's Latest Sales

Wednesday May 25, 2022 10:09 am PDT by
Amazon is marking down a wide variety of 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models this week, with prices starting as low as $749.00 for the 11-inch tablet. You'll find the full list of sales below, all of which can be found on Amazon. Note: MacRumors is an affiliate partner with some of these vendors. When you click a link and make a purchase, we may receive a small payment, which helps us keep...
apple account card

Wallet App Now Supports Apple Account Cards on iOS 15.5

Wednesday May 25, 2022 5:01 pm PDT by
Apple appears to have recently updated the Wallet app to allow users to add an Apple Account Card, which displays the Apple credit balance associated with an Apple ID. If you receive an App Store or Apple Store gift card, for example, it is added to an Apple Account that was previously visible in the App Store and Apple Store apps. As of today, the Apple Account balance can also be added to...
Apple Tap to Pay iPhone

Apple Stores Rolling Out iPhone-to-iPhone Contactless Payments Starting Today

Wednesday May 25, 2022 6:54 am PDT by
Apple in February unveiled a new "Tap to Pay on iPhone" feature that will allow compatible iPhones to accept payments via Apple Pay, contactless credit and debit cards, and other digital wallets, with no additional hardware required. Apple began testing the feature at its Apple Park Visitor Center earlier this month, and now Bloomberg's Mark Gurman has tweeted that the feature will begin...
apple wwdc 2022

Apple Shares WWDC 2022 Schedule, Keynote to Take Place June 6 at 10:00 a.m PT

Tuesday May 24, 2022 9:06 am PDT by
Apple today confirmed that the keynote event for the Worldwide Developers Conference will begin at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time on June 6, the first day of WWDC. The keynote will be an online-only event, though a select number of developers have been invited to the Apple Park campus for a viewing event. In addition to confirming the keynote date and time, Apple has shared the full WWDC 2022...