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The Lesson to Learn From Apple’s Tool to Flag Child Sex Abuse

We all put more of our photos, documents, and videos online; howw much of that data belongs to us anymore? That’s the question many are now pondering because of a change coming to iPhones. The debate has implications for online privacy and government surveillance. It underlines how the storage of our digital data has changed over time, raising concerns about how we should conduct ourselves technologically. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

The unrest began last week when Apple introduced a software tool for iPhones to flag cases of child sex abuse. That seems reasonable, right? This fall, the device will be included in Apple’s next mobile software update. It scans an iPhone for code linked to a database of known child pornography when photos from the device are uploaded to iCloud, Apple’s online storage service. Once there are a certain number of matches, an Apple employee reviews the photos before informing the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Child Sex Abuse

But some cybersecurity experts countered that the content-flagging system was invasive and infringed on people’s privacy. They warned that Apple was creating a precedent that made it simple for surveillance-heavy countries like China to pass laws requiring the company to use the technology for other purposes, such as scanning for political images unfavorable to an authoritarian government. “They’ve said they don’t have any plans to do worse things with this technology, but this just feels, at this point, naïvely optimistic,” said Erica Portnoy, a technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital rights nonprofit.

In response to the backlash, Apple published a document explaining that the new system will not scan people’s private iPhone photo libraries this week. Also, the matching technology will cease to work if people disable their iPhone’s photo library from backing up images to iCloud, a company spokesman said. But no matter how this Apple episode plays out, it reminds us how much our digital data storage has changed. In the past, most of us stored our digital photos on our computer drives and miniature USB sticks. Those belonged to us alone.

We increasingly store our documents and other information in “the cloud,” where big companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft host the data on their server computers. In the process, those companies gained a lot more power over our information. That leads me to something I have said: It’s wise to have an exit strategy for pulling your data from the cloud if you want to leave. All it takes is a little forethought. Over the last few years, I’ve embraced a hybrid approach of storing copies of my data online and offline, so I can reap the benefits of the cloud and retain independent ownership of my data. My efforts culminated in creating an online home server, essentially a private cloud.

Katie Axon

After leaving the corporate world to pursue my dreams, I started writing because it helped me organize and express myself. It also allowed me to connect with people who share my passion for art, travel, fashion, technology, health, and food. I currently write on vexsh, a site focused on sharing and discovering what it means to be a creative, passionate person living in today's digital age.

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