Monthly Archives: August 2021

Is Apple’s NeuralMatch searching for abuse, or for people?

Apple stunned the tech industry on Thursday by announcing that the next version of iOS and macOS will contain a neural network to scan photos for sex abuse. Each photo will get an encrypted ‘safety voucher’ saying whether or not it’s suspect, and if more than about ten suspect photos are backed up to iCloud, then a clever cryptographic scheme will unlock the keys used to encrypt them. Apple staff or contractors can then look at the suspect photos and report them.

We’re told that the neural network was trained on 200,000 images of child sex abuse provided by the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Neural networks are good at spotting images “similar” to those in their training set, and people unfamiliar with machine learning may assume that Apple’s network will recognise criminal acts. The police might even be happy if it recognises a sofa on which a number of acts took place. (You might be less happy, if you own a similar sofa.) Then again, it might learn to recognise naked children, and flag up a snap of your three-year-old child on the beach. So what the new software in your iPhone actually recognises is really important.

Now the neural network described in Apple’s documentation appears very similar to the networks used in face recognition (hat tip to Nicko van Someren for spotting this). So it seems a fair bet that the new software will recognise people whose faces appear in the abuse dataset on which it was trained.

So what will happen when someone’s iPhone flags ten pictures as suspect, and the Apple contractor who looks at them sees an adult with their clothes on? There’s a real chance that they’re either a criminal or a witness, so they’ll have to be reported to the police. In the case of a survivor who was victimised ten or twenty years ago, and whose pictures still circulate in the underground, this could mean traumatic secondary victimisation. It might even be their twin sibling, or a genuine false positive in the form of someone who just looks very much like them. What processes will Apple use to manage this? Not all US police forces are known for their sensitivity, particularly towards minority suspects.

But that’s just the beginning. Apple’s algorithm, NeuralMatch, stores a fingerprint of each image in its training set as a short string called a NeuralHash, so new pictures can easily be added to the list. Once the tech is built into your iPhone, your MacBook and your Apple Watch, and can scan billions of photos a day, there will be pressure to use it for other purposes. The other part of NCMEC’s mission is missing children. Can Apple resist demands to help find runaways? Could Tim Cook possibly be so cold-hearted as to refuse at add Madeleine McCann to the watch list?

After that, your guess is as good as mine. Depending on where you are, you might find your photos scanned for dissidents, religious leaders or the FBI’s most wanted. It also reminds me of the Rasterfahndung in 1970s Germany – the dragnet search of all digital data in the country for clues to the Baader-Meinhof gang. Only now it can be done at scale, and not just for the most serious crimes either.

Finally, there’s adversarial machine learning. Neural networks are fairly easy to fool in that an adversary can tweak images so they’re misclassified. Expect to see pictures of cats (and of Tim Cook) that get flagged as abuse, and gangs finding ways to get real abuse past the system. Apple’s new tech may end up being a distributed person-search machine, rather than a sex-abuse prevention machine.

Such a technology requires public scrutiny, and as the possession of child sex abuse images is a strict-liability offence, academics cannot work with them. While the crooks will dig out NeuralMatch from their devices and play with it, we cannot. It is possible in theory for Apple to get NeuralMatch to ignore faces; for example, it could blur all the faces in the training data, as Google does for photos in Street View. But they haven’t claimed they did that, and if they did, how could we check? Apple should therefore publish full details of NeuralMatch plus a set of NeuralHash values trained on a public dataset with which we can legally work. It also needs to explain how the system it deploys was tuned and tested; and how dragnet searches of people’s photo libraries will be restricted to those conducted by court order so that they are proportionate, necessary and in accordance with the law. If that cannot be done, the technology must be abandoned.