There are two dominate smartphone operating systems: Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Google’s business model depends on surveilling users. Apple has exploited this fact by making privacy a major selling point in its marketing material. When it comes to privacy, iOS is significantly better than Android… at least it was. Today it was revealed that Apple plans to add a feature to iOS that surveils users:
Child exploitation is a serious problem, and Apple isn’t the first tech company to bend its privacy-protective stance in an attempt to combat it. But that choice will come at a high price for overall user privacy. Apple can explain at length how its technical implementation will preserve privacy and security in its proposed backdoor, but at the end of the day, even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor.
There are two main features that the company is planning to install in every Apple device. One is a scanning feature that will scan all photos as they get uploaded into iCloud Photos to see if they match a photo in the database of known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) maintained by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). The other feature scans all iMessage images sent or received by child accounts—that is, accounts designated as owned by a minor—for sexually explicit material, and if the child is young enough, notifies the parent when these images are sent or received. This feature can be turned on or off by parents.
When Apple releases these “client-side scanning” functionalities, users of iCloud Photos, child users of iMessage, and anyone who talks to a minor through iMessage will have to carefully consider their privacy and security priorities in light of the changes, and possibly be unable to safely use what until this development is one of the preeminent encrypted messengers.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of outrage I’ve seen online about this feature. I expected most people to praise this feature out of fear of being labeled a defender of child pornography if they criticized it. But even comments on Apple fanboy sites seem to be predominantly against this nonsense.
This move once again demonstrates the dangers of proprietary platforms. If, for example, a Linux distro decided to include a feature like this, users would have a number of options. They could migrate to another distro. They could rip the feature out. They could create a fork of the distro that didn’t include the spyware. This is because Linux is an open system and users maintain complete control over it.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to open smartphones. The options that do exist aren’t readily accessible to non-technical users. Android Open Source Projects, which are versions of Android without Google’s proprietary bits, like LineageOS and GrapheneOS don’t come preinstalled on devices. Users have to flash those distros to supported devices. Smartphones developed to run mainline Linux like the PinePhone and Librem 5 still lack stable software. Most people are stuck with spyware infested smartphone. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that smartphones, unlike traditional x86-based computers, are themselves closed platforms (which is not to say x86-based platforms are entirely open, but they are generally much more open that embedded ARM devices) so developing open source operating systems for them is much harder.