90+ digital rights organisations ask Apple to drop image surveillance plans

Digital Rights Watch joins a coalition of more than 90 U.S. and international organizations dedicated to civil rights, digital rights, and human rights, in an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, asking the company to abandon its recently announced plans to build surveillance capabilities into iPhones, iPads and other Apple products.  

“End-to-end encryption is like a lock on a door. It is a basic requirement for security in any form of online communication in the digital age, and Apple is entering into dangerous territory by supporting a capability that circumvents that protection,” said Lucie Krahulcova, Executive Director of Digital Rights Watch. “They will face mounting pressure from governments to make this tool available for all sorts of content. It’s inevitable and there is plenty of evidence behind our fears.”

On August 5, 2021, Apple announced that it will be installing surveillance software that will conduct on-device scanning in Messages and photos. As the coalition’s letter explains, although the new features are designed to protect children and reduce the spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), they will create new risks for children and could be used to censor speech and threaten the privacy and security of people around the world. In particular:

  • The scan and alert feature in Messages could result in alerts that threaten the safety and wellbeing of some young people, and LGBTQ+ youths with unsympathetic parents are particularly at risk.
  • Once the CSAM hash scanning for photos is built into Apple products, the company will face enormous pressure, and possibly legal requirements, from governments around the world to scan for other kinds of images that the governments find objectionable. 

The letter further notes that the algorithms Apple intends to deploy to detect explicit images in Messages are “notoriously unreliable…and prone to mistakenly flag art, health information, educational resources, advocacy messages, and other imagery.”

“These surveillance systems will do little to protect children, possibly creating more danger for vulnerable young people. While doing that, they will put every Apple user’s privacy and security at risk,” said Tom Sulston, Deputy Chair of Digital Rights Watch.

Apple’s announcement comes at the same time as the Australian eSafety Commissioner’s office is gearing up to exercise their new powers under the Online Safety Act passed earlier this year. Digital Rights Watch has consistently warned that the over-broad powers contained in the Online Safety Act could be used to compel digital platform providers to undermine the security of encrypted systems. We anticipate that this announcement from Apple will not be the last such measure to deal with digital content as the Commissioner is currently running a public consultation for Basic Online Safety Expectations (a part of their powers under the Online Safety Act) and a mandatory age-verification regime for online pornography. 

“We expect the results of the eSafety Commission’s consultations will further incentivise more technology companies to proactively surveil and censor their users at the expense of our collective digital security,” said Samantha Floreani, Program Lead at Digital Rights Watch.   

The breadth of the international coalition joining the letter demonstrates the extent to which Apple’s plans open the door to threats to human rights across the globe.

The full text of the letter with signatories can be found here.