Earlier this month, Apple unveiled a system that would scan iPhone and iPad photos for child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The announcement sparked a civil liberties firestorm, and Apple’s own employees have been expressing alarm. The company insists reservations about the system are rooted in “misunderstandings.” We disagree.
We wrote the only peer-reviewed publication on how to build a system like Apple’s — and we concluded the technology was dangerous. We’re not concerned because we misunderstand how Apple’s system works. The problem is, we understand exactly how it works.
Our research project began two years ago, as an experimental system to identify CSAM in end-to-end-encrypted online services. As security researchers, we know the value of end-to-end encryption, which protects data from third-party access. But we’re also horrified that CSAM is proliferating on encrypted platforms. And we worry online services are reluctant to use encryption without additional tools to combat CSAM.
We sought to explore a possible middle ground, where online services could identify harmful content while otherwise preserving end-to-end encryption. The concept was straightforward: If someone shared material that matched a database of known harmful content, the service would be alerted. If a person shared innocent content, the service would learn nothing. People couldn’t read the database or learn whether content matched, since that information could reveal law enforcement methods and help criminals evade detection.
Our system could be easily repurposed for surveillance and censorship. The design wasn’t restricted to a specific category of content; a service could simply swap in any content-matching database, and the person using that service would be none the wiser.
A foreign government could, for example, compel a service to out people sharing disfavored political speech. That’s no hypothetical: WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app, already uses content matching to identify dissident material. India enacted rules this year that could require pre-screening content critical of government policy. Russia recently fined Google, Facebook and Twitter for not removing pro-democracy protest materials.
We spotted other shortcomings. The content-matching process could have false positives, and malicious users could game the system to subject innocent users to scrutiny.
We were so disturbed that we took a step we hadn’t seen before in computer science literature: We warned against our own system design, urging further research on how to mitigate the serious downsides. We’d planned to discuss paths forward at an academic conference this month.
That dialogue never happened. The week before our presentation, Apple announced it would deploy its nearly identical system on iCloud Photos, which exists on more than 1.5 billion devices. Apple’s motivation, like ours, was to protect children. And its system was technically more efficient and capable than ours. But we were baffled to see that Apple had few answers for the hard questions we’d surfaced.
China is Apple’s second-largest market, with probably hundreds of millions of devices. What stops the Chinese government from demanding Apple scan those devices for pro-democracy materials? Absolutely nothing, except Apple’s solemn promise. This is the same Apple that blocked Chinese citizens from apps that allow access to censored material, that acceded to China’s demand to store user data in state-owned data centers and whose chief executive infamously declared, “We follow the law wherever we do business.”
Apple’s muted response about possible misuse is especially puzzling because it’s a high-profile flip-flop. After the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., the Justice Department tried to compel Apple to facilitate access to a perpetrator’s encrypted iPhone. Apple refused, swearing in court filings that if it were to build such a capability once, all bets were off about how that capability might be used in future.
“It’s something we believe is too dangerous to do,” Apple explained. “The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused … is to never create it.” That worry is just as applicable to Apple’s new system.
Apple has also dodged on the problems of false positives and malicious gaming, sharing few details about how its content matching works.
The company’s latest defense of its system is that there are technical safeguards against misuse, which outsiders can independently audit. But Apple has a record of obstructing security research. And its vague proposal for verifying the content-matching database would flunk an introductory security course.
Apple could implement stronger technical protections, providing public proof that its content-matching database originated with child-safety groups. We’ve already designed a protocol it could deploy. Our conclusion, though, is that many downside risks probably don’t have technical solutions.
Apple is making a bet that it can limit its system to certain content in certain countries, despite immense government pressures. We hope it succeeds in both protecting children and affirming incentives for broader adoption of encryption. But make no mistake that Apple is gambling with security, privacy and free speech worldwide.