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Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Apple's plan to detect images of child sexual abuse on iPhones and to shield some underage users of Messages from receiving explicit images has touched off the latest round of a perennial debate over prioritizing law enforcement or user privacy.

Why it matters: There's increasing pressure on giant tech platforms to flag illegal behavior and remove harmful content. But smartphones are also powerful tools of surveillance that are increasingly employed by authoritarian governments and invasive marketers to target users around the world.

What's happening: Apple's new system, announced Thursday, will use cryptographic hashes to identify illegal images that users are uploading to Apple's iCloud without Apple directly snooping in users' troves of photos.

  • It will also use on-device machine learning to flag sexually explicit photos sent via Apple's Messages service by or to users with family accounts.

Driving the news: Apple, which rarely feels the need to publicly explain itself, posted a six-page FAQ Monday responding to critics and explaining points it feels the press has misreported.

What they're saying: Child safety organizations applauded Apple.

  • “Apple’s expanded protection for children is a game changer," John Clark, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Expoited Children, said in a statement. "With so many people using Apple products, these new safety measures have lifesaving potential for children who are being enticed online and whose horrific images are being circulated in child sexual abuse material."
  • "The commitment from Apple to deploy technology solutions that balance the need for privacy with digital safety for children brings us a step closer to justice for survivors whose most traumatic moments are disseminated online," Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking nonprofit, said in a statement.

Yes, but: Organizations focused on online privacy — including the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — raised concerns that the technology Apple was deploying to flag illegal child sexual abuse material (CSAM) would get redeployed to detect other kinds of content.

  • Several thousand people signed an open letter posted via Github arguing that "Apple's proposal introduces a backdoor that threatens to undermine fundamental privacy protections for all users of Apple products."
  • Will Cathcart, head of Facebook's encrypted messaging service WhatsApp, tweeted: "I read the information Apple put out yesterday and I'm concerned. I think this is the wrong approach and a setback for people's privacy all over the world. People have asked if we'll adopt this system for WhatsApp. The answer is no."

The bottom line: Daring Fireball's John Gruber praised the intent and design of Apple's system but acknowledged "completely legitimate concerns from trustworthy experts about how the features could be abused or misused in the future."

  • Alex Stamos of the Stanford Internet Observatory tweeted, "I find myself constantly torn between wanting everybody to have access to cryptographic privacy and the reality of the scale and depth of harm that has been enabled by modern comms technologies."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with news about Apple's FAQ.

Go deeper

Nov 15, 2021 - Technology

Poll: 53% of Twitter users cite misleading information as big problem

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A majority of Twitter users get news from the social network, despite more than half seeing misleading information on the social network as a major problem, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

The big picture: With almost a quarter of Americans using Twitter, it's increasingly become a source for the latest information. Among those who use the platform for news, the study found a large increase in those who use it to follow breaking news events.

Updated 1 min ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a potentially historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Swastikas found outside Union Station in D.C.

People walk through Union Station on Jan. 16 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Drawings of swastikas appeared etched around the entrance to Union Station in Washington, D.C., on Friday morning.

Driving the news: "An investigation is underway with Amtrak Police and the Metropolitan Police Department after swastikas were reported on the exterior of Washington Union Station on Friday," Amtrak spokesperson Kimberly Woods said in a statement to Axios.