Why Billionaires Want Your iPhone to Spy On You

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It may be the start of the year, but it is of course the end of the season for my favorite professional sport, American football, aka handegg. And I know “sentence two” is a bit early for a random aside, even for me, but I wanted to put in a clip of a comedian describing “handegg,” which I was sure originated in an Eddie/Suzy Izzard bit, but apparently I was WRONG and the actual origin is this letter to the editor of the New York Times from 1909, which honestly makes it even more delightful.

Anyway, the end of the handegg season means the “BIG GAME,” the Superb Owl, and that means commercials. Because that’s America, baby, if we love one thing it’s men giving each other CTEs while slapping each other on the butt, and if we love two things it’s the CTEs and capitalism, which is why not only do we get excited for companies to spend $10 million to get us to buy their products but we get SO excited that now we’re getting shown teasers for those commercials several weeks before they air. Truly a wonderful time to be alive.

At this time last year, the big ad buy that caught my attention was the “He Gets Us” ads for Jesus, which I covered in full in this video which you can go watch now if you’d like. If you don’t feel like pausing this to go watch, here’s the summary: that ad campaign is sponsored by a shadowy group of billionaires pushing evangelical Christianity, including the Hobby Lobby guy who goes to court to try to stop his employees from using their own money to buy birth control.

I have a feeling we’re going to see more of those “He Gets Us” ads this year, but I also noticed a new player popping up during this year’s divisional championship games: a rather heartbreaking spot that “includes the lived experiences of child sexual abuse.” Content warning: I’m gonna be talking about that.

I rarely pay attention to commercials but this one caught my eye for obvious reasons: it’s a pretty dramatic message, and it’s calling out Apple, a huge corporation who I have a few connections with. I’ve been using Apple products for about 20 years now, and I have no real desire to switch my phone or my laptop anytime soon. I should also mention that I am married to an engineer who works for Tim Apple, so I do have a vested interest in, like, whether or not they’re evil. I already knew that Apple has its major flaws: I hate the “walled garden” aspect, the culty aspect, the possible abuse of workers who make the devices aspect, you know, all that stuff. But I’ve always appreciated Apple’s seeming commitment to privacy, particularly end-to-end encryption. I have a few privacy-pilled friends who DON’T use Apple products because they have the knowledge and energy to set up systems that  protect them. I do not have that knowledge or energy so I’m more or less happy to take the Apple shortcut.

After seeing that very anti-Apple ad, I went out searching for more information to determine how and why, exactly, the company is aiding in the spread of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). And boy did I find a weird little can of worms. I mean, you knew that, didn’t you? If I went looking into it and found just a normal sensible thing you wouldn’t be watching this on YouTube right now, would you?

I got my first hint when I went to the URL they promoted, “protect children not abuse dot com,” where I clicked on “About Us” and learned that the ad buyer was the Heat Initiative, and organization founded and run by Sarah Gardner, who previously was the Vice President of External Affairs for Thorn. Thorn! Remember Thorn? No? Then allow me to put a little link to this video I made last year, in which I discuss the fact that Thorn is an outrageously problematic organization that agitates for police to harass consenting adult sex workers while failing miserably in its mission to stop child sex trafficking. Oh also it was founded by Ashton Kutcher, who asked a judge to go easy on his friend who is a convicted rapist. Thorn develops technology that rightfully concerns privacy advocates like Meg Foster of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, who told Forbes about Thorn’s facial recognition software, “Technology initially intended to serve a narrow purpose like combating human trafficking can easily and quickly expand into a tool for mass surveillance, especially when there is no oversight of these private and philanthropic partnerships between technology creators and law enforcement agencies.”

I’m sure none of that is relevant to what Gardner, along with two other former Thorn executives, are now doing with the Heat Initiative, though. Oh wait yes it is: back in 2021, Apple announced that they would now scan for any child sexual abuse images that users uploaded to their private iCloud accounts and upon detection they would report the user to law enforcement. This move was applauded by Thorn and other organizations, but intensely criticized by privacy advocates who couldn’t quite believe Apple’s initial claim that it could do this without violating the privacy of users who were not pedophiles, and that it could do it without nudging a boulder over the edge of a slippery slope, at the bottom of which was a salivating horde of authoritarian despots.

Personally, I understand their skepticism. I don’t know much about the inner workings of cryptography but I do know that when I ask my iPhone to show me photos I’ve taken of dogs, the first 40 images include six cats, two cats dressed as a bear, two cats dressed as a Totoro, one cat dressed as a bunny, one cat dressed as a shark (look, Brendon loved dressing up I swear), one wallaby, and one stuffed toy squirrel. To be fair they ARE all mammals. Most of them are real.

That’s no big deal, but what if it was against the law to have pictures of dogs on your phone? And here I am, an innocent person with this treasured memory of meeting my first wallaby, getting a knock on the door from the Feds to ask me a few questions and confiscate all my devices for an unspecified period of time. Not good!

When it announced this feature, Apple had a complicated explanation for how it could detect CSAM without sacrificing end-to-end encryption, but security experts were quick to point out how this policy could lead to false reports from photos on phones that hadn’t been uploaded to iCloud, and could also be easily adapted by authoritarian governments to root out activists and political opponents. It seems that then those experts dug further into the issue and apparently found such serious problems that shortly after the announcement Apple backtracked and said they would NOT be doing all this after all. They instead beefed up measures that would allow parents to opt into features that would stop children from sharing potentially inappropriate images, stopping at least one form of exploitation (predators grooming children into sharing nudes) before it starts. It’s also worth noting that because email does not have end-to-end encryption, Apple already scans attachments in iCloud Mail for possible CSAM and proactively reports and bans users for it.

This brings us to last year, when the Heat Initiative showed up to call out Apple for not moving forward with the original plan. Apple responded publicly with a letter stating in part that “Scanning every user’s privately stored iCloud data would create new threat vectors for data thieves to find and exploit. It would also inject the potential for a slippery slope of unintended consequences. Scanning for one type of content, for instance, opens the door for bulk surveillance and could create a desire to search other encrypted messaging systems across content types.”

They go on to say, “Scanning systems are also not foolproof and there is documented evidence from other platforms that innocent parties have been swept into dystopian dragnets that have made them victims when they have done nothing more than share perfectly normal and appropriate pictures of their babies.”

Apparently this did not convince the Heat Initiative, because, well, I just saw that commercial during a nationally televised football game. They don’t mention any of those privacy concerns, but they have added a quote from “a former apple executive” saying “…we are the greatest platform for distributing child porn,” which is quite upsetting! It comes from texts revealed in discovery for a lawsuit, in which Apple’s anti-fraud chief Eric Friedman explains that sites like Facebook don’t care about privacy and so have an easier time than Apple finding and banning users doing illegal things. Considering that plus the fact that all iphone users are automatically opted into iCloud photo storage, it stands to reason that the platform would have more illegal content on it than other networks. Those texts from 2020 might be exactly why Apple started exploring ways to detect CSAM while still holding onto their reputation as protectors of privacy.

In the end, I personally think Apple made the right decision. As Edward Snowden remarked, it would be a terrible idea EVEN IF there were no serious security flaws: “Once the precedent has been set that it is fit and proper for even a “pro-privacy” company like Apple to make products that betray their users and owners, Apple itself will lose all control over how that precedent is applied. ??????As soon as the public first came to learn of the “spyPhone” plan, experts began investigating its technical weaknesses, and the many ways it could be abused, primarily within the parameters of Apple’s design. Although these valiant vulnerability-research efforts have produced compelling evidence that the system is seriously flawed, they also seriously miss the point: Apple gets to decide whether or not their phones will monitor their owners’ infractions for the government, but it’s the government that gets to decide what constitutes an infraction… and how to handle it.”

Add in the actual security flaws and it’s a no-brainer: turning a billion phones into narcs is not the way to end child exploitation.

Now, in my previous Super Bowl commercial video expose I mentioned that the “He Gets Us” ads are funded by a shadowy cabal of billionaires, so I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Heat Initiative’s Protect Children Not Abuse campaign is ALSO funded by a shadowy cabal of billionaires who wish to remain anonymous despite literally calling for the end of privacy for a billion Apple users. The only difference is that THIS shadowy cabal is ostensibly liberal. The Intercept has a great deep dive on Hopewell Fund, the “labyrinthine billionaire-backed network” listed as the owner and operator of Protect Children Not Abuse dot com, which has been deemed the  “left’s equivalent of the Koch brothers.” While they’ve earned that by advocating for causes like universal basic income, they also occasionally throw the conservatives a bone, like in 2017 when the NFL asked them to administer a fund in the hopes of convincing players to stop protesting the National anthem.

A Heat Initiative spokesperson “told the Intercept that Hopewell serves as the organization’s “fiscal sponsor,” an arrangement that allows tax-deductible donations to pass through a registered nonprofit on its way to an organization without tax-exempt status. Liao declined to provide a list of the Heat Initiative’s funders beyond the two mentioned by the New York Times,” referring to this article from last fall that mentions the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the Oak Foundation, each of which was founded by British billionaires and the latter of which recently gave a quarter of a million dollars to weaken end-to-end encryption in the EU.

That New York Times article also mentions that Apple isn’t just being targeted by this one group: “A group of two dozen investors with nearly $1 trillion in assets under management have also called on Apple to publicly report the number of abusive images that it catches across its devices and services.

“Two investors — Degroof Petercam, a Belgian asset manager, and Christian Brothers Investment Services, a Catholic investment firm — will submit a shareholder proposal this month that would require Apple to provide a detailed report on how effective its safety tools were at protecting children.”

And of course, Apple continues to be pressured to weaken end-to-end encryption by governments, both my own here in the United States and abroad, in the hope that they can, you know, do more spying on us. For the children, and/or terrorism, whatever is hot right now.
So that’s the straight dope on that scary ad you’re probably going to see nestled amongst Bud Light and Doritos commercials this year. Don’t buy into the hype: if Apple is evil, it’s not because they’re refusing to trade away users’ privacy in the hopes of catching nefarious criminals. If anything it’s because a few weeks ago they told 121 people working in their San Diego office that they were going to have to move to Austin, Texas or be out of a job, something that frankly should be illegal. It should be twice as illegal if the person in question has a uterus. It is a crime against humanity to force anyone to move from San Diego to Texas at the risk of losing their income. Make an ad about that and I’ll sign your petition.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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