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Apple’s controversial phone-scanning plan gets eviscerated

October 15, 2021, 9:56 PM UTC

The firestorm over Apple’s plan to start searching people’s phones for illicit content blazes on. 

A group of leading cryptographers and security researchers on Thursday posted a new draft paper to ArXiv, an academic database, that eviscerates Apple’s proposal for so-called client-side scanning. Apple proposed the technology in August as a possible workaround that might allow for the reporting of illegal or harmful materials—like child abuse imagery—to authorities without compromising customers’ privacy. 

The backlash to Apple’s scan-plan was swift and severe. Critics said it would be infeasible for Apple to prevent world governments, including authoritarian, censorship-happy regimes, from abusing the tech, levying demands to root out disagreeable content of any sort on people’s personal devices. The software, which would effectively act like a narc embedded on people’s iPhones, could have unintended consequences, critics said, despite Apple’s assurances that it would be used solely to stop child predators.

The chorus of opponents is growing louder. The phone-scanning software “neither guarantees efficacious crime prevention nor prevents surveillance. Indeed, the effect is the opposite,” the 14 co-authors of the new paper said. Apple’s proposed solution “by its nature creates serious security and privacy risks for all society while the assistance it can provide for law enforcement is at best problematic.”

The tech “can fail, can be evaded, and can be abused,” the security researchers said. They called the method of scanning a form of “wiretapping” that can be exploited by governments, rogue actors, criminals, spies, and intimate partners.

“Plainly put, it is a dangerous technology,” the group said, one that “can result in a significant chilling effect on freedom of speech and, indeed, on democracy itself.”

The anti-scanners consist of the same pro-strong encryption folks who years ago sided with Apple in the company’s struggle to resist the FBI’s demands, for the purposes of an investigation, to unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist. Suffice it to say they are not persuaded by Apple’s latest turn. While Apple endures their heat, the company is delaying its plans for the scanning program’s rollout—not unlike Facebook putting Instagram for Kids on ice while it weathers blowback from a series of embarrassing data leaks. 

The new paper is worth reading in full—especially considering Apple’s recent ceding to Chinese censorship demands by pulling religious app’s from the region’s App Store. It’s hard not to agree with the skeptics’ assessment: “Introducing this powerful scanning technology on all user devices without fully understanding its vulnerabilities and thinking through the technical and policy consequences would be an extremely dangerous societal experiment.”

You can agree with Apple’s intent—eliminating child predation—while disagreeing with an approach that would turn us all into guinea pigs.

Robert Hackett
@rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

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And on Thursday, Apple fired Janneke Parrish, one of the leader's movements, for reportedly deleting files from her company computer and phone before handing them over as part of an internal investigation. AppleToo's other public face is Cher Scarlett, a 36-year-old software engineer who is a single mother living in Kirkland, Wash., The Washington Post reported Thursday in a profile of how Scarlett has become the face of a much-broader movement among tech workers. 

From the article:

Apple, a company that devotes considerable marketing effort to branding itself as a leader in diversity and inclusion, faced internal and external criticism for hiring someone who appeared to conflict with its stated corporate values.

Several employees reached out to Scarlett for guidance on how to respond to the hire. Scarlett says she raised the issue with human resources, but did not hear back immediately. She ended up helping write a letter condemning the hire. She said she told the authors of the letter to be more assertive. “This man just wrote that we’re weak and cosseted,” she recalls saying. “So let’s not be.”

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“I have been gutted, as many other folks at Apple were, with the hiring of Antonio Garcia Martinez,” Scarlett wrote. “I believe in the strength of community we have at Apple, & that the culture we’ve built can weather this. I also believe in leadership to do the right thing, whatever that is.”

 

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BEFORE YOU GO

U-turns on u-turns on u-turns. A flood of Waymo cars is hitting an otherwise quiet San Francisco neighborhood, driving down one block only to make a sudden U-turn, the local CBS affiliate reported. Some days, upwards of 50 cars make their way in the area. A company spokesperson told the news station that the cars must turnaround at the sight of a Slow Street sign, which indicates the street isn't open to cars. But neighbors have been confused nonetheless, with one saying, "I awoke to a strange hum and I thought there was a spacecraft outside my bedroom window."

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