CSAM Overview Updated September 1, 2022


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36 'CSAM' stories

August 2021 - August 2022


Apple’s efforts to detect Child Sexual Abuse Materials (CSAM).

What is CSAM?

While US federal law uses the term child pornography, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) explains why the term CSAM is preferred.

NCMEC chooses to refer to these images as Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) to most accurately reflect what is depicted – the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Not only do these images and videos document victims’ exploitation and abuse, but when these files are shared across the internet, child victims suffer re-victimization each time the image of their sexual abuse is viewed […]

While CSAM is seen and transmitted on computers and through other technology, these images and videos depict actual crimes being committed against children. The human element, children at risk, must always be considered when talking about this offense that is based in a high-tech world.

How is it usually detected?

The usual way to detect CSAM is when cloud services like Google Photos scan uploaded photos and compare them against a database of known CSAM images. This database is provided by NCMEC and similar organizations around the world.

The actual matching process uses what’s known as a hash, or digital fingerprint. This is derived from key elements of the image, and is deliberately fuzzy so that it will continue to work when images are resized, cropped, or otherwise processed. This means there will sometimes be false positives: an innocent image whose hash happens to be a close enough match to a CSAM one.

How is Apple detecting CSAM?

Apple made an announcement in early August 2021 about its own plans to begin scanning for CSAM.

Apple has chosen to take a somewhat different approach, which it says better protects privacy. This process is:

  • Apple downloads the CSAM database hashes to your iPhone
  • An on-device process looks for matches with hashes of your photos
  • If fewer than 30* are found, no action is taken
  • If 30+ matches are found, low-resolutions of your photos are manually examined by Apple
  • If the photos are found to be innocent, no further action is taken
  • If manual review confirms them as CSAM, law enforcement is informed

*Apple initially said only that there was a threshold of matching images, without revealing what it was, but Craig Federighi implied in an interview that this is 30 images.

What concerns have been raised?

Concerns have been raised by cybersecurity experts, human rights organizations, governments, and Apple’s own employees. Four main concerns have been raised, explained here:

  • Accidental false positives could ruin someone’s reputation
  • Deliberate false positives (aka collision attacks) could be created to achieve the same goal
  • Authoritarian governments could add political posters and similar to the database
  • The same hash-based on-device searches could be later applied to iMessage

Additionally, because Apple simultaneously announced an entirely separate feature designed to detect nude photos in iMessages sent or received by children, many non-technical people conflated the two, thinking Apple was scanning our photos for nudes.

How has Apple responded?

Apple engaged in a flurry of rapid-fire PR activity designed to correct misapprehensions and address genuine concerns. This included a leaked internal memo, a series of background briefings, interviews, and a six-page FAQ.

Apple said that images were only scanned if they were synched with iCloud, so customers could opt out if they wished. It added that the risk of either accidental or deliberate false positives was statistically insignificant, as it required multiple matches before an account was flagged. Even then, an Apple employee would review images before any report to law enforcement.

The company said it would roll out the feature on a country-by-country basis, and would refuse any government demand to add political images to the database – a promise it cannot realistically make.

Since then, things have gone complete quiet, with no sign of any move by Apple to actually launch CSAM scanning.

Why has this proven so controversial?

Google, Amazon, Facebook and many other tech giants already routinely scan for CSAM and report instances to law enforcement. Apple is merely joining in, and trying to use a more privacy-focused approach, by performing the actual comparison on-device. So why so much controversy?

In part, for the reason explained earlier: Apple’s mistake in simultaneously announcing two different features.

But the outrage was entirely predictable, given the years Apple has spent touting its privacy credentials.

The company has put up huge billboards. It has run amusing ads. It has an entire privacy microsite. Its CEO talks about privacy in every interview and public appearance. The company attacks other tech giants over privacy. It fought the entire ad industry over a new privacy feature.

Any risk that customer privacy will be compromised, however small the likelihood, and however well-intentioned the reason, was bound to raise eyebrows.

Apple may not be able to keep its head down much longer, however, as a UK CSAM law could force the issue.

CSAM Stories August 22

The British government has backed a call by the country’s security services for client-side scanning for child sexual abuse material – aka Apple’s CSAM approach.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has written an op-ed in which she indicates government support for the stance, while also attacking Facebook’s plans to make all Messenger chats end-to-end encrypted by default …

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CSAM Stories July 14

Update: The vote on the bill is now expected to be delayed until the fall – see end for more details.

A proposed new CSAM law in the UK could force all messaging companies to use the type of client-side scanning approach that Apple planned to launch to detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on iPhones.

An amendment to the Online Safety Bill has been put forward that would require tech companies to identify and remove CSAM, even in end-to-end encrypted private messages …

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CSAM Stories May 12

We learned yesterday that a proposed new EU CSAM scanning law for tech giants would force Apple to revisit its own plans for detecting child sexual abuse materials. The company had quietly set these aside in response to a huge amount of controversy over its proposed approach.

Many had feared that the proposed law would involve yet another assault on end-to-end encrypted messaging, and this has now been confirmed by wording in the document …

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CSAM Stories May 11

Update: The EU has now announced the proposed new law. More details at the bottom.

Apple’s CSAM troubles may be back, after controversy over the issue of scanning iPhones for child sexual abuse materials led to the company suspending its plans.

A report today says that the European Union is planning a law that would require tech giants like Apple to detect, report, and remove CSAM, and that we’ll see a draft of the new law as early as this week …

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CSAM Stories April 15

The Department of Homeland Security has opened a TikTok CSAM investigation, after child sexual abuse material was posted both publicly and privately on the video sharing network.

Additionally, the platform is being heavily used by abusers for grooming – the practice of befriending a child online with the intention of later abusing them, either online or offline …

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CSAM Stories December 16, 2021

Update: As we suspected, nothing has changed. An Apple spokesperson told The Verge that the feature is still delayed, not cancelled.

Apple’s website references to CSAM scanning have been quietly removed by the company in the past few days.

The company’s child safety microsite previously described the company’s plans for scanning iPhones for Child Sexual Abuse Materials, alongside the Communication Safety in Messages feature, and warnings when someone searches for CSAM. However, the section on CSAM scanning has now been removed …

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CSAM Stories October 15, 2021

Governments were already discussing how to misuse CSAM scanning technology even before Apple announced its plans, say security researchers.

The biggest concern raised when Apple said it would scan iPhones for child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) is that there would be spec-creep, with governments insisting the company scan for other types of images, and there now seems good evidence for this …

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CSAM Stories September 20, 2021

Apple has really gotten itself into a CSAM no-win situation. If it presses ahead, then it will be condemned by civil rights groups and security professionals. If it doesn’t, it will be condemned by child protection groups.

The company has currently bought itself some time by delaying the rollout while it tries to think of additional safeguards, but the question remains: What could those be? …

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CSAM Stories September 17, 2021

Apple giving into Russia twice this week on key civil liberties issues proves that the company’s CSAM misuse assurances cannot be trusted, argues a high-profile security expert.

Apple today pulled from the App Store an opposition tactical voting app after the Russian government threatened specific local company employees with “punishment” if they refused. It turns out that Apple also turned off its Private Relay service in Russia just yesterday, likely also in response to government pressure…

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CSAM Stories September 9, 2021

The British government has expressed support for Apple’s now-delayed CSAM scanning plans, and says that it wants the ability to scan encrypted messages for CSAM, even where end-to-end encryption is used.

The country is offering to pay anyone who can find a way “to keep children safe in environments such as online messaging platforms with end-to-end encryption” …

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CSAM Stories September 3, 2021

Last month, Apple announced a handful of new child safety features that proved to be controversial, including CSAM detection for iCloud Photos. Now, Apple has said they will “take additional time” to refine the features before launching to the public.

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CSAM Stories August 23, 2021

The CSAM controversy ought to have been obvious to Apple, but it seems that it wasn’t. Instead, the company was left scrabbling to respond as it came under fire from all quarters.

The question is: What will Apple do now? I have my theory …

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Apple has confirmed to me that it already scans iCloud Mail for CSAM, and has been doing so since 2019. It has not, however, been scanning iCloud Photos or iCloud backups.

The clarification followed me querying a rather odd statement by the company’s anti-fraud chief: that Apple was “the greatest platform for distributing child porn.” That immediately raised the question: If the company wasn’t scanning iCloud photos, how could it know this?

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CSAM Stories August 20, 2021

Two academics from Princeton University say they know for a fact that Apple’s CSAM system is dangerous because they built one just like it.

They say the system they prototyped worked in exactly the same way as Apple’s approach, but they quickly spotted a glaring problem…

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Update: A likely explanation for this comment has now emerged.

An explanation for Apple’s controversial decision to begin scanning iPhones for CSAM has been found in a 2020 statement by Apple’s anti-fraud chief.

Eric Friedman stated, in so many words, that “we are the greatest platform for distributing child porn.” The revelation does, however, raise the question: How could Apple have known this if it wasn’t scanning iCloud accounts… ?

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CSAM Stories August 19, 2021

More than 90 civil rights groups around the world have signed an open letter objecting to what they call iPhone surveillance capabilities, asking Apple to abandon its plans for CSAM scanning.

Additionally, they would also like the iPhone maker to drop plans for the iMessage nude detection, as this could place young gay people at risk.

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Update: Apple mentions a second check on the server, and a specialist computer vision company has outlined one possibility of what this might be – described below under ‘How the second check might work.’

An early version of the Apple CSAM system has effectively been tricked into flagging an innocent image, after a developer reverse-engineered part of it. Apple, however, says that it has additional protections to guard against this happening in real-life use.

The latest development occurred after the NeuralHash algorithm was posted to the open-source developer site GitHub, enabling anyone to experiment with it…

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CSAM Stories August 18, 2021

Developer claims to have reverse-engineered Apple’s CSAM detection

A developer claims to have reverse-engineered the NeuralHash algorithm used in Apple’s CSAM detection. Conflicting views have been expressed about whether this would enable the child sexual abuse material detection system to be defeated…

CSAM Stories August 17, 2021

Since Apple presented the new CSAM scan feature to protect children, the announcement has generated a lot of concerns and controversies about users’ privacy. Now, the Digital Agenda committee chief of the German parliament wants Apple to reconsider its CSAM plans in a letter to Tim Cook.

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Security company Corellium is offering to pay security researchers to check Apple CSAM claims, after concerns were raised about both privacy, and the potential of the system for misuse by repressive governments.

The company says that there are any number of areas in which weaknesses could exist, and they would like independent researchers to look for these…

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CSAM Stories August 13, 2021

Apple has published a new document today that offers additional detail on its recently announced child safety features. The company is addressing concerns about the potential for the new CSAM detection capability to turn into a backdoor, with specifics on the threshold it’s using and more.

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In a video interview with the Wall Street Journal, Apple SVP Craig Federighi discusses the reaction to the iCloud Child Safety features announced last week.

Federighi admits that the simultaneous announcement of the Messages protections for children and CSAM scanning, two similar features but work in very different ways, has caused customer confusion and Apple could have done a better job at communicating the new initiative.

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Update: Within minutes of writing this piece, an interview was posted where Craig Federighi admitted that Apple should have handled things differently.

One thing about the CSAM scanning controversy is now abundantly clear: It took Apple completely by surprise. Which is a surprise.

Ever since the original announcement, Apple has been on a PR blitz to correct misapprehensions, and to try to address the very real privacy and human rights concerns raised by the move …

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CSAM Stories August 12, 2021

Apple has been facing a lot of criticism following the announcement of a new system that will scan users’ photos for CSAM (child sexual abuse material) content. However, not only regular iOS users are worried about this, but also Apple’s own employees.

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