Posted: 3 Min ReadNorton Labs

The balance between catching predators and consumer privacy

Launch of Apple’s NeuralHash technology highlights the privacy pros and cons of photo scanning

An important goal of technology is to make consumers’ lives not just easier but also safer. Technology—in particular artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML)—can help to safeguard people’s safety, dignity, and privacy in the face of various forms of abuse that plague society, including cyberbullying, domestic abuse, and threats to child safety.

Some of the most heinous crimes we strive to defend against are sexual crimes targeting children and minors, such as  Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). Detecting and stopping the spread of CSAM on the internet by using AI/ML techniques is a valuable tool that technologists are deploying in various shapes and forms.

To that end, Apple announced recently that it will deploy its NeuralHash technology to detect known images of CSAM. The tool will scan images during the (otherwise encrypted) process of uploading photos to Apple’s iCloud platform. Apple’s approach will scan for known fingerprints of such material drawn from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children database of CSAM.

Apple’s approach will certainly bolster the fight against CSAM by providing valuable information to law enforcement. Many security researchers, however, have expressed concerns about the privacy implications of the approach. All photo uploads from all Apple iCloud users in the U.S. will be scanned.

For years, Apple has been subjected to pressure from law enforcement agencies to allow access to encrypted user data, including photos and messages. As such, security and privacy experts are concerned that these types of “global” scans may be misused, including by governments who aim at surveilling their citizens. Indeed, due to privacy concerns expressed by multiple parties, Apple has decided to delay the rollout of this feature.

Many people (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) use their smartphones to take pictures of private documents or other types of private data or moments. Given that the potential misuse of content scanning systems raises serious privacy concerns for the majority of people (who are non-offenders), it is worth considering what can be done to protect legitimate private information, while still allowing Apple and other vendors to scan for illegal explicit content.

Norton Labs recently released the SafePic app on iOS, which can help with photo-related privacy concerns. SafePic employs AI/ML in order to identify photos on smartphones containing personal information (such as photos of IDs, credit cards, etc.). It offers users the ability to protect such photos either by saving them in a secure private vault, or by introducing “smart blur” through the PhotoBlur feature.

The ability to automatically identify specific classes of sensitive/private photos enables SafePic users to help protect and make wise decisions about the way such photos are used. SafePic also offers the ability to take photos directly within the app and add them to the user’s on-device SafePic secure vault. All scanning, “smart” classification and processing of content happens on the user’s smartphone and none of the sensitive content leaves the device. The SafePic app is one of the first of its kind and provides consumers with the ability to help safeguard their private information.

You can find SafePic on the Apple app store and read a PC Mag review of it here.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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About the Author

Dr. Petros Efstathopoulos

Global Head of NortonLifeLock Research Group

Petros joined NortonLifeLock Research Group in 2009 and has focused on next-generation storage/backup systems, portable storage security, network security, privacy and identity. He is responsible for Lab strategy, direction, and growth.

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