CSAM Overview Updated August 18, 2021


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30 'CSAM' stories

August 2021 - October 2021


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.

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.

CSAM Stories Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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CSAM Stories August 10

Last week, Apple announced three new features that target child safety on its devices. While intentions are good, the new features have not come without scrutiny, with some organizations and Big Tech CEOs being against Apple’s announcement.

The company published a FAQ about all of these new features and how they will work. Now, trying to avoid more controversy, Apple Privacy head Erik Neuenschwander addressed concerns about its new systems to detect CSAM in an interview with TechCrunch.

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While most of the concerns about governments misusing CSAM scanning to detect things like political opposition have related to foreign governments, some have suggested that it could become an issue in the US, too.

Matt Tait, COO of security company Corellium, and a former analyst at British NSA equivalent GCHQ, says the Fourth Amendment means that this could not happen in the US …

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Five days after Apple’s child protection measures were announced, there has been no let-up in the controversy surrounding the upcoming new features. Latest to comment is Facebook’s former security chief and now Stanford cybersecurity professor Alex Stamos.

Stamos says that there are no easy answers here, and calls for more nuanced discussion than the prevailing narratives that this is either a great move or an unacceptable one …

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CSAM Stories August 9

Apple continues to offer clarity around the CSAM (child sexual abuse material) detection feature it announced last week. In addition to a detailed frequently asked questions document published earlier today, Apple also now confirmed that CSAM detection only applies to photos stored in iCloud Photos, not videos.

The company also continues to defend its implementation of CSAM detection as more privacy-friendly and privacy-preserving than other companies.

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Apple has responded to misconceptions and concerns about its photo scanning announcements by publishing a CSAM FAQ – answering frequently asked questions about the features.

While child safety organizations welcomed Apple’s plans to help detect possession of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), and to protect children from predators, there has been a mix of informed and uninformed criticism …

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CSAM Stories August 7

Ever since Apple introduced the new protection tools for child safety this week, it instantly divided opinions. While some think this is a huge deal to protect children, others believe it will just create a backdoor for governments to access people’s iPhones.

Now, WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart is the latest to join those who think the new Child Safety tools from Apple could be bad.

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