Apple letting the content-scanning genie out of the bottle

When Apple announced that they would be scanning iPhones for child sexual abuse material (CSAM), the push-back appears to have taken them by surprise. Since then, Apple has been engaging with experts and developing their proposals to mitigate risks that have been raised. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the issues with Apple’s CSAM detection system and what I’ve learned from their documentation and events I’ve participated in.

Technically Apple’s CSAM detection proposal is impressive, and I’m pleased to see Apple listening to the community to address issues raised. However, the system still creates risks that will be difficult to avoid. Governments are likely to ask to expand the system to types of content other than CSAM, regardless of what Apple would like to happen. When they do, there will be complex issues to deal with, both for Apple and the broader technology community. The proposals also risk causing people to self-censor, even when they are doing nothing wrong.

How Apple’s CSAM detection works

The iPhone or iPad scans images for known CSAM just before it uploads the image to Apple’s cloud data storage system – iCloud. Images that are not going to be uploaded don’t get scanned. The comparison between images and the database is made in such a way that minor changes to CSAM, like resizing and cropping, will trigger a match, but any image that wasn’t derived from a known item of CSAM should be very unlikely to match. The results of this matching process go into a clever cryptographic system designed to ensure that the user’s device doesn’t learn the contents of the CSAM database or which of their images (if any) match. If more than a threshold of about 30 images match, Apple will be able to verify if the matching images are CSAM and, if so, report to the authorities. If the number of matching images is less than the threshold, Apple learns nothing.

Risk of scope creep

Now that Apple has built their system, a risk is that it could be extended to search for content other than CSAM by expanding the database used for matching. While some security properties of their system are ensured through cryptography, the restriction to CSAM is only a result of Apple’s policy on the content of the matching database. Apple has clearly stated that it would resist any expansion of this policy, but governments may force Apple to make changes. For example, in the UK, this could be through a Technical Capability Notice (under the Investigatory Powers Act) or powers proposed in the Online Safety Bill.

If a government legally compelled them to expand the matching database, Apple may have to choose between complying or leaving the market. So far, Apple has refused to say which of these choices they would take.

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