Policy groups urged Apple to abandon plans to review iMessages and search for abuse images

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More than 90 political and rights groups around the world posted an open letter Thursday urging Apple to abandon plans to scan children’s messages for nudity and scan adults’ phones for images of child sexual abuse.

“Although these skills are designed to protect children and reduce the spread of child sexual abuse material, we fear that they will be used to censor protected language, threaten the privacy and safety of people around the world, and Children have catastrophic consequences for many, “wrote the groups in the letter, which was first reported by Reuters.

The largest campaign to date on an encryption problem in a single company was organized by the US nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT).

In particular, some overseas signatories are concerned about the impact of the changes in countries with different legal systems, including some that are already having heated battles over encryption and data protection.

“It is so disappointing and worrying that Apple is doing this because they have been a staunch ally in the past in the defense of encryption,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, co-director of CDT’s Security & Surveillance Project.

An Apple spokesman said the company addressed privacy and security concerns in a document on Friday that outlined why the complex architecture of the scanning software should resist attempts to undermine it.

Signatories included several groups in Brazil, where courts have repeatedly blocked Facebook’s WhatsApp for failing to decipher messages in a criminal investigation, and the Senate has passed a law requiring messages to be traceable, which requires their content to be tagged would require. A similar law was passed in India this year.

“Our main concern is the consistency of this mechanism as it could be extended to other situations and other companies,” said Flavio Wagner, president of the independent Brazilian section of the Internet Society, who signed. “This represents a serious weakening of the encryption.”

Other signatories were in India, Mexico, Germany, Argentina, Ghana and Tanzania.

Surprised by the earlier outcry following its announcement two weeks ago, Apple has come up with a series of statements and documents to argue that the risks of false positives are low.

Apple said it will oppose requests to expand the vision system beyond images of children flagged by clearinghouses in multiple jurisdictions, despite not announcing its withdrawal from the market rather than obeying a court order.

While most of the objections so far have been device scanning, the coalition’s letter also criticizes a change to iMessage in family accounts, which would attempt to detect and blur nudity in children’s messages so they can only view it when the parents do be notified.

The signatories said the move could put children in intolerant households or those looking for educational materials at risk. In a broader sense, they said the change will break end-to-end encryption for iMessage that Apple has consistently defended in other contexts.

“Once that backdoor is in place, governments could force Apple to expand notification to other accounts and recognize images that are explicitly offensive for reasons other than sexually explicit,” the letter said.

Other groups that have signed up are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access Now, Privacy International, and the Tor Project.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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