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Apple defends its new anti-child-abuse tech against privacy concerns

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Apple defends its new anti-child-abuse tech against privacy concerns


Following this week’s announcement, some experts think Apple will soon announce that iCloud will be encrypted. If iCloud is encrypted but the company can still identify child abuse material, pass evidence along to law enforcement, and suspend the offender, that may relieve some of the political pressure on Apple executives. 

It wouldn’t relieve all the pressure: most of the same governments that want Apple to do more on child abuse also want more action on content related to terrorism and other crimes. But child abuse is a real and sizable problem where big tech companies have mostly failed to date.

“Apple’s approach preserves privacy better than any other I am aware of,” says David Forsyth, the chair of the computer science department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who reviewed Apple’s system. “In my judgement this system will likely significantly increase the likelihood that people who own or traffic in [CSAM] are found; this should help protect children. Harmless users should experience minimal to no loss of privacy, because visual derivatives are revealed only if there are enough matches to CSAM pictures, and only for the images that match known CSAM pictures. The accuracy of the matching system, combined with the threshold, makes it very unlikely that pictures that are not known CSAM pictures will be revealed.”

What about WhatsApp?

Every big tech company faces the horrifying reality of child abuse material on its platform. None have approached it like Apple.

Like iMessage, WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted messaging platform with billions of users. Like any platform that size, they face a big abuse problem.

“I read the information Apple put out yesterday and I’m concerned,” WhatsApp head Will Cathcart tweeted on Friday. “I think this is the wrong approach and a setback for people’s privacy all over the world. People have asked if we’ll adopt this system for WhatsApp. The answer is no.”

WhatsApp includes reporting capabilities so that any user can report abusive content to WhatsApp. While the capabilities are far from perfect, WhatsApp reported over 400,000 cases to NCMEC last year.

“This is an Apple built and operated surveillance system that could very easily be used to scan private content for anything they or a government decides it wants to control,” Cathcart said in his tweets. “Countries where iPhones are sold will have different definitions on what is acceptable. Will this system be used in China? What content will they consider illegal there and how will we ever know? How will they manage requests from governments all around the world to add other types of content to the list for scanning?”

In its briefing with journalists, Apple emphasized that this new scanning technology was releasing only in the United States so far. But the company went on to argue that it has a track record of fighting for privacy and expects to continue to do so. In that way, much of this comes down to trust in Apple. 

The company argued that the new systems cannot be misappropriated easily by government action—and emphasized repeatedly that opting out was as easy as turning off iCloud backup. 

Despite being one of the most popular messaging platforms on earth, iMessage has long been criticized for lacking the kind of reporting capabilities that are now commonplace across the social internet. As a result, Apple has historically reported a tiny fraction of the cases to NCMEC that companies like Facebook do.

Instead of adopting that solution, Apple has built something entirely different—and the final outcomes are an open and worrying question for privacy hawks. For others, it’s a welcome radical change.

“Apple’s expanded protection for children is a game changer,” John Clark, president of the NCMEC, said in a statement. “The reality is that privacy and child protection can coexist.” 

High stakes

An optimist would say that enabling full encryption of iCloud accounts while still detecting child abuse material is both an anti-abuse and privacy win—and perhaps even a deft political move that blunts anti-encryption rhetoric from American, European, Indian, and Chinese officials.

A realist would worry about what comes next from the world’s most powerful countries. It is a virtual guarantee that Apple will get—and probably already has received—calls from capital cities as government officials begin to imagine the surveillance possibilities of this scanning technology. Political pressure is one thing, regulation and authoritarian control are another. But that threat is not new nor is it specific to this system. As a company with a track record of quiet but profitable compromise with China, Apple has a lot of work to do to persuade users of its ability to resist draconian governments.

All of the above can be true. What comes next will ultimately define Apple’s new tech. If this feature is weaponized by governments for broadening surveillance, then the company is clearly failing to deliver on its privacy promises.



Tech

Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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