Apple has backflipped on its controversial CSAM system, will delay its rollout following privacy criticisms
It’s not often that Apple faces backlash, even from fans of the company, but it did so recently when it announced a controversial system for scanning for child sexual abuse material (CSAM). While no one has been questioning the importance of the initiative, concerns were raised by a number of academics, experts in privacy and other advocacy groups about the potential to use Apple’s system by governments and law enforcement agencies to spy more widely on people.
Apple issued a statement to 9to5Mac explaining its reversal:
Last month we announced plans for features intended to help protect children from predators who use communication tools to recruit and exploit them, and limit the spread of Child Sexual Abuse Material. Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.
While many other companies scan for CSAM content, Apple’s approach differed fundamentally in that its system wasn’t going to just scan iCloud Photos in the cloud, but also on a user’s Apple device before they were uploaded. While Apple’s system was undoubtedly robust, privacy advocates were concerned it created a backdoor that could potentially be abused by governments and law enforcement agencies. Advocacy groups were also concerned about Apple’s separate, but related, initiative to scan iMessages for CSAM content as well.
With the upcoming launch of iPhone 13/12S and iOS 15, Apple clearly didn’t want this controversy casting a shadow over the event, and it is clear that it will need to go back to the drawing board which means its CSAM system won’t be ready to go live with the launch of iOS 15 anyway. It will be interesting to see what Apple does to change its system in response to the feedback it has received. What is clear, however, is Apple should have engaged more closely with privacy experts and advocacy groups before it launched its CSAM system. Not only has it resulted in an embarrassing and botched launch, but it has delayed the rollout of a very important tool necessary to stop the spread of CSAM.