It’s been a curious time for Apple. The multinational tech company prides itself on its commitment to ensuring the privacy of those who use its array of high-end devices. Yet, if the Pegasus scandal exposed a key vulnerability to hacking in the company’s products, its latest announcement has raised concerns. Apple recently announced that its updates later in the year would work on protecting children from Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) while also scanning its users’ devices for such material.
CSAM refers to media content—images or videos—in which a child is being sexually abused or assaulted. The material not only documents the sexual violation and victimisation of a child, but also perpetuates it. Organisations like the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children work to scan CSAM in circulation through sophisticated software and take down the material. While most major tech companies like Facebook already scan their user images for such content, Apple has only now proposed new initiatives to address this serious issue. However, Apple’s solution may well create new problems.
Of the two significant changes Apple proposes, the first involves a notification to young children when they might be exposed to sensitive material on iMessage, saying it will inform the child’s parents to check on them. The second would involve Apple scanning images on a user’s device (if iCloud is activated) and raising tokens when one of them matches known CSAM. If a certain number of tokens are raised, the material will be reviewed by a person who may then alert the authorities.
While the moves certainly seem well-intentioned, the question arises: What is to stop Apple from using this backdoor access to data to expand its reach? What is to stop it from becoming a dictator’s tool? After all, despite its averred commitment to privacy, Apple has accommodated the requests of an authoritarian China with alacrity. It is among a handful of companies along with Twitter and Facebook through which vast powers have been concentrated in a few billionaires. Democracies must become more agile in anticipating and fending off challenges these entities may inflict on individuals, institutions and states.