Apple’s plan to scan customers’ phones and other devices for images depicting child sexual abuse generated a backlash over privacy concerns, leading the company to announce a delay.
Apple, Facebook, Google and other companies have long scanned customers’ images that are stored on the companies’ servers for this content. Scanning data on users’ devices is a significant change.
Although well-intentioned, and whether or not Apple is willing to follow through on its promises to protect customers’ privacy, the company’s plan highlights the fact that people who buy iPhones don’t own their own devices. Huh. In addition, Apple is using a complex scanning system that is hard to audit. Thus, customers face a harsh reality: If you use an iPhone, you have to trust Apple.
In particular, customers are forced to rely on Apple to use this system only as described, to keep the system running securely over time, and to put the interests of its users over those of other parties, including Including the most powerful governments on the planet.
Despite Apple’s unique plan so far, the problem of trust is not exclusive to Apple. Other big tech companies also have considerable control over customers’ devices and insights into their data.
What is trust?
According to social scientists, trust is “the willingness of one party to be sensitive to the actions of another”. People base their decision to rely on experience, signs and cues. But past behavior, promises, the way someone acts, evidence and even contracts only give you data points. They cannot guarantee future course of action.
Therefore, belief is a matter of probabilities. Whenever you trust someone or an organization, you are kind of rolling the dice.
Reliability is a hidden asset. People collect information about one’s possible future behavior, but cannot know for sure whether the person has the ability to stick to his word, whether he is truly altruistic and has, over time, been under pressure. Integrity is the principles, procedures, and consistency in or for maintaining its behavior. when the unexpected happens.
Trust Apple and Big Tech
Apple has said that their scanning system will only be used to detect child sexual abuse material and has a number of strong privacy protections. Technical details of the system indicate that Apple has taken steps to protect user privacy as long as targeted content is not detected by the system. For example, humans would review someone’s suspicious content only when the number of times the system could detect targeted content reached a certain threshold. However, Apple has provided little proof about how this system would work in practice.
After analyzing the “NeuralHash” algorithm that Apple is basing its scanning system on, security researchers and civil rights organizations have warned that contrary to Apple’s claims, the system is vulnerable to hackers.
Critics also fear that the system will be used to scan for other material such as signs of political dissent. Apple, along with other Big Tech players, has accepted demands from an authoritarian regime, particularly China, to allow government surveillance of technology users. In practice, the Chinese government has access to all user data. What will be different this time?
It should also be noted that Apple is not operating this system on its own. In the US, Apple plans to use data from the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and report suspicious content. Thus, relying on Apple is not enough. Users must also trust the company’s partners to act benevolently and with integrity.
Big Tech’s least encouraging track record
This case exists in the context of regular Big Tech privacy invasions and goes on to further curtail consumer freedom and control. The companies have positioned themselves as responsible parties, but many privacy experts say there is little transparency and scarce technical or historical evidence for these claims.
Another concern is the unintended consequences. Apple really wants to protect kids and protect users’ privacy at the same time. Nevertheless, the company has now announced – and has put its credibility at stake – a technology that is well suited to spying on large numbers of people. Governments can pass laws to expand scanning for other content considered illegal.
Will Apple, and potentially other tech firms, choose not to comply with these laws and potentially exit these markets, or will they comply with potentially harsher local laws? Nothing can be said about the future, but Apple and other tech firms have chosen to accept repressive regimes earlier. For example, tech companies operating in China are subjected to censorship.
Weighing in on whether to trust Apple or other tech companies
There is no single answer to the question whether Apple, Google or their competitors can be trusted. Risks vary depending on who you are and where you are in the world. An activist in India faces different dangers and risks than an Italian defense lawyer. Belief is a matter of probabilities, and risks are not only probabilistic, but also situational.
It’s a matter of what failure or deception probability you can live with, what the relevant threats and risks are, and what protections or mitigations exist. The position of your government, the existence of strong local privacy laws, the strength of the rule of law and your own technical ability are relevant factors. Still, there’s one thing you can count on: Tech firms usually have extensive control over your equipment and data.
Like all large organizations, tech firms are complex: employees and management come and go, and the rules, policies, and power dynamics change.
A company may be trustworthy today but not tomorrow.
[Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]
Big Tech has shown behavior in the past that should make users question their credibility, especially when it comes to privacy violations. But he has defended user privacy in other cases as well, for example in the San Bernadino mass shooting case and the subsequent debate about encryption.
Last but not least, Big Tech does not exist in a vacuum and is not omnipotent. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and others have to respond to various external pressures and forces. Perhaps, given these circumstances, more transparency, more independent audits by journalists and civil society trustees, more user control, more open-source code and genuine discourse with customers could be a good start to balance the various objectives. Is.
While only a first step, consumers will at least be able to make a more informed choice about which products to use or buy.