Apple has announced impending changes to its operating systems that include new “protections for children” features in iCloud and iMessage. If you’ve spent any time following the Crypto Wars, you know what this means: Apple is planning to build a backdoor into its data storage system and its messaging system.
Child exploitation is a serious problem, and Apple isn’t the first tech company to bend its privacy-protective stance in an attempt to combat it. But that choice will come at a high price for overall user privacy. Apple can explain at length how its technical implementation will preserve privacy and security in its proposed backdoor, but at the end of the day, even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor.
Basically, Apple is going to scan your iCloud photo library, and compare cryptographic hashes of your photos to known photos containing child pornography.
It’s hard to argue against this because it makes it seem as if you’re arguing against catching the sort of people that have such material. However, the issue with tools like this are not the ends – all of us are on the same side here – but the means. It’s more than obvious that this scanning is a gross invasion of privacy, but at the same time, you could easily argue that this is a bit of privacy we’d be willing to give up in order to aid in catching the worst elements of our society.
The real problems stem from the fact that tools like this are simply never going to be foolproof. Software is incredibly unreliable, and while a random application crashing won’t ruin your life, an algorithm wrongfully labeling you as a pedophile most definitely will. On top of unintended consequences, malicious intent could be a major problem here too – what if some asshole wants to ruin your life, and sends you compromised photos, or otherwise sneaks them onto your device? And with Apple’s long history of working very closely with the most horrid regimes in the world, imagine what governments can do with a tool like this?
On the ends that Apple is trying to get to here, we are all on the same side. The means to get there, however, need to be carefully considered.