As many fret about Apple’s new plans to scan iPhones for signs of child abuse material, the company has confirmed that it already scans users’ iCloud Mail accounts for such images—and has done so for years.
As first reported by 9to5mac on Monday, the company has actually scanned cloud-linked email accounts since 2019 for child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The outlet’s reporter, Ben Lovejoy, explained it thusly:
Apple confirmed to me that it has been scanning outgoing and incoming iCloud Mail for CSAM attachments since 2019. Email is not encrypted, so scanning attachments as mail passes through Apple servers would be a trivial task. Apple also indicated that it was doing some limited scanning of other data, but would not tell me what that was, except to suggest that it was on a tiny scale. It did tell me that the “other data” does not include iCloud backups.
Lovejoy also cites a now-archived Apple child-safety page, which notes the email scanning, as well as the company’s chief privacy officer, Jane Horvath, reportedly mentioning its CSAM-scanning tech a conference in early 2020. We reached out to Apple to independently verify the claims made by 9to5mac and will update this piece if they respond.
The news comes amidst ongoing concerns about Apple’s new plans to rollout on-device scanning of iPhones and other iOS devices for CSAM. The new features, announced less than a month ago, have alarmed privacy advocates—who see the new tools as a slippery slope towards broader surveillance.
Despite the company’s ongoing attempts to get everybody on board, however, morale has not particularly improved. Thousands of cybersecurity and IT professionals recently signed a petition asking Apple to reverse its plans. An open-letter to Tim Cook, signed by over 90 different policy groups, has alleged that the new tools “will be used to censor protected speech, threaten the privacy and security of people around the world, and have disastrous consequences for children.” Even Bill Maher recently did a segment on it in which he dunked on the decision pretty hard.
The controversy has threatened Apple’s image as a company that prioritizes consumer privacy. However, it’s unclear if the current outcry will deter the tech giant. The new features are scheduled to be rolled out exclusively in the United States later this year with the release of the iOS 15 and iPadOS 15.