Apple’s dangerous path

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Good morning, friends!Week in Review

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. We’re going to be talking about Apple’s NeuralHash controversy, which is a lot more important than the state of the internet at the moment.

This article can be downloaded from TechCrunch’s newsletter page. Follow my Twitter @lucasmtny if you are reading it on TechCrunch.

Apple's dangerous path

The big deal

Apple made an unforced mistake in the last month. This is something Apple has been doing exceptionally well at avoiding.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The on-device scanning cannot be turned off for obvious reasons.

Apple made the announcement on its own, and it was not co-ordinated with any other tech companies.

Advocate groups and researchers had nearly unambiguously negative feedback about the effort. This raised concerns that it could open up new channels for governments, who might use this information to identify on-device data they consider objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

Apple wasn’t trying to prevent the spread of CSAM, but rather was seeking out ways to make as many device security concessions possible. Apple unilaterally made a huge decision that could affect millions of people (while probably pushing other companies towards the same solutions) and did so with no external input from others about any possible consequences or safeguards.

To make a long story short: Apple’s NeuralHash was not as tight as researchers had hoped. The company announced Friday it would delay the rollout to “take additional time over these coming months for input and make improvements prior to releasing these critical child safety features.”

After many years working in tech media, it is clear that there is no reason for Apple to announce news on Friday before a long weekend. This is a huge embarrassment to Apple. As with all delayed rollouts like this, it shows that Apple’s internal teams were not adequately prepared or lacked the ideology diversity necessary to understand the problem they were dealing with. It’s not a criticism of Apple’s staff for creating this, but rather a dig at Apple trying to resolve a problem such as this within the Apple Park vacuum and keeping to its iOS release schedule.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple has been increasing its focus on privacy as an important selling point in the iOS ecosystem. As a result, privacy-centric features are being developed towards the same level of secrecy that surface-level design changes commands. Apple’s June announcement of iCloud+ raised eyebrows by revealing that some privacy-centric features will only be made available to iPhone owners who have subscribed to additional services.

Although you can’t get public opinions for all product updates, it is possible to treat wide-ranging privacy and security features differently from the typical product update. Apple’s inability to engage with advocacy and research groups via NeuralHash is quite egregious. It raises questions about how Apple views the wider internet and the impact of their choices on iOS.

It’s a positive thing to delay the rollout of this feature, but we all should hope that they reflect on it more widely.

Although the news was unexpected, Apple didn’t create this feature out of thin air. The people at Apple’s top felt the wind of tech regulation was shifting toward bans on encryption methods in certain markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.

Apple's dangerous path

Other things

These are TechCrunch’s top news stories this week.

LinkedIn kills Stories
Although it may surprise you to learn that LinkedIn had an Stories-like product available on its platform, those who knew that LinkedIn was testing Stories won’t be surprised that their test did not go as planned. This week, the company said that the feature would be suspended at the end the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
Although everything went smoothly for Richard Branson’s space trip last month, there are questions from the FAA about why it seemed so unexpectedly to veer off of the approved route. The FAA has stopped further launches of the company until it finds out the details.

Apple purchases a streaming music service for classical music
__S.43__

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
Although it is not a secret that ByteDance has tried to emulate Facebook’s successes at times, many didn’t expect TikTok to enter the virtual reality world. Pico, a startup that makes VR headsets and other products for North American consumers in China was bought by a Chinese firm.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
Twitter can be a great product, but the same features that make it so cool for certain users may make things difficult for others. This realization has been slow for Twitter. Twitter’s latest innovation is to give users more control. Twitter has a “safety mode”, which combines algorithmic intelligence and user input.

Apple's dangerous path

Additional things

These are some of my favourite reads this week from Extra Crunch’s subscription service:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1
Today, Y Combinator launched its fourth virtual Demo Day. It revealed the first half its almost 400-company batch. This presentation is YC’s largest yet and gives a glimpse into the direction of innovation, including not-so-simple seaweed, to a Clearco for Creators

…Part 2
“…Today’s TechCrunch team covered half the batch as well as startups that had one-minute pitches. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. These were the ones that made us think, despite having to go through hundreds of pitches per day.

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… If your company has not yet launched a credit or debit card, there is good news. It is easier than ever and you can make real money. Be aware that there is plenty of competition if your company launches a debit or credit card. The actual usage by customers will depend on the sticky nature of your service and what rewards you give to active users .

Thank you for reading. And again, TechCrunch subscribers can have this sent to their inbox via the newsletter page. Follow me @lucasmtny on Twitter.

Lucas Matney

Publited Sat, 4 Sep 2021 at 18:17.50 +0000

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