Apple and The Privacy Paradox

published in

10 de August de 2021


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Is your photo gallery yours or is it Apple’s?

In June 2019, Apple put up a giant billboard on a Las Vegas building that read: “What Happens on iPhone, Stays on iPhone.”
The ad reiterated the company’s commitment to safeguarding its users’ privacy and data. Yet, judging by the events of the last few days, the company might do better to place a billboard with Luís de Camões’ most famous poem: “Times change, as do our wills. What we are changes, trust changes”.

Apple has also changed when it comes to its commitment to privacy. Last week, the big tech company announced a bizarre project that at first sight aims to tackle the spread of material depicting sexual imagery and child abuse (which it christened CSAM, or “child sexual abuse materials”). The company has created a system that will permanently monitor, scan, and analyze all photos stored on iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers. If the system detects any suspicious photos, the authorities will be automatically notified.

Fighting child abuse is a paramount effort and therefore must be relentless. Looking from this perspective, the company’s intentions might be well worth it. However, in doing so, it completely blurs the line between private and public digital space. After all, who owns your phone’s photo gallery? Is it Apple or is it you?

Apple’s system amplifies the impression that those who own the company’s products are not owners at all. Rather, they are “guests,” subject to certain codes of conduct, present or future, infinitely changeable, and, above all, to permanent surveillance.

The new policy has created a furor among information security researchers and privacy advocacy organizations alike. The organization Electronic Frontier Foundation stated: “It’s impossible to build a client-side scanning system that can only be used for sexually explicit images. As a consequence, even a well-intentioned effort to build such a system will open the door to broader abuses.”

For its part, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) said the system “marks a significant departure from Apple’s long-held privacy and security protocols.”

This is a shameful move. The company had been taking steps to give its users more control over their data and the immunity of Apple products. In this sense, this measure somewhat contradicts the company’s marketing strategy.

It is worth remembering that iPhones have been targets of spying programs such as the Pegasus software. These tools — without the need for a single click by the user — allow attackers to hack into Apple’s smartphones, allowing full access to users’ data and messages. The decision to widen the gaps in devices even more instead of filling them has become yet another element of that paradox.

After all, the company can hardly serve two purposes simultaneously. On the one hand, it creates a secure product, which is increasingly desired in the face of growing cyberattacks. On the other hand, it puts in place systems of surveillance and control over its products. Think of cars traveling in opposite directions on the same one-way road. The result can only remind us once again of Camões’ verses: “Time changes […] trust changes.”

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