Apple says it will be introducing a new photo scanning feature for its iPhones, with former US National Security Agency member and whistleblower Edward Snowden warning that the US is in fact rolling out mass surveillance to the entire world.
Snowden’s condemnation on Friday came after Apple confirmed that it plans later this year to roll out what it calls new child safety features that include searching for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) in a user’s iCloud Photos library.
The tech giant said the CSAM searching process would happen locally on a user’s device, insisting that its intention is only to root out child sexual abuse.
Snowden and other privacy advocates endorsed a petition against the Apple’s plan, calling it an assault on user’s privacy.
In a series of tweets on Friday, Snowden expressed concerns that Apple is rolling out a form of "mass surveillance to the entire world" and setting a precedent that could allow the company to scan for any other arbitrary content in the future.
No matter how well-intentioned, @Apple is rolling out mass surveillance to the entire world with this. Make no mistake: if they can scan for kiddie porn today, they can scan for anything tomorrow.— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) August 6, 2021
They turned a trillion dollars of devices into iNarcs—*without asking.* https://t.co/wIMWijIjJk
In their petition, security and privacy experts, cryptographers, researchers, academics, legal experts and ordinary consumers blasted Apple’s plan as a “privacy-invasive content scanning technology.”
While acknowledging that efforts to combat child exploitation and abuse are “almost unquestionably well-intentioned,” the signatories stressed that Apple’s plan to constantly monitor and scan everyone’s photos “introduces a backdoor that threatens to undermine fundamental privacy protections for all users of Apple products.”
They raised the alarm that the technology has the potential to bypass any end-to-end encryption that would normally safeguard the user's privacy, something Apple has long been promoting as a major feature of its software ecosystem.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Open Privacy Research Society were among several prominent advocates and researchers that signed the petition.
The EFF echoed similar concerns in a statement and said that Apple’s decision “will come at a high price for overall user privacy.”
“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,” the statement said.
“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,” it added.
“To say that we are disappointed by Apple’s plans is an understatement,” the statement continued, calling the move a “shocking about-face” from a company that claims to be the leader in privacy and security.
The EFF warned that photo scanning could enable governments and law enforcement agencies to look for a whole host of other content, such as images that could be used as evidence in a criminal case against someone.
The issues of digital surveillance and privacy protection have been in the limelight since Snowden began leaking classified intelligence documents in June 2013.
He revealed that the NSA had been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans and foreign nationals as well as political leaders around the world.