Will Apple’s image-scan plan protect children or just threaten privacy?

This morning’s Observer column:

Once upon a time, updates of computer operating systems were of interest only to geeks. No longer – at least in relation to Apple’s operating systems, iOS and Mac OS. You may recall how Version 14.5 of iOS, which required users to opt in to tracking, had the online advertising racketeers in a tizzy while their stout ally, Facebook, stood up for them. Now, the forthcoming version of iOS has libertarians, privacy campaigners and “thin-end-of-the-wedge” worriers in a spin.

It also has busy mainstream journalists struggling to find headline-friendly summaries of what Apple has in store for us. “Apple is prying into iPhones to find sexual predators, but privacy activists worry governments could weaponise the feature” was how the venerable Washington Post initially reported it. This was, to put it politely, a trifle misleading and the first three paragraphs below the headline were, as John Gruber brusquely pointed out, plain wrong.

To be fair to the Post though, we should acknowledge that there is no single-sentence formulation that accurately captures the scope of what Apple has in mind. The truth is that it’s complicated; worse still, it involves cryptography, a topic guaranteed to lead anyone to check for the nearest exit. And it concerns child sexual abuse images, which are (rightly) one of the most controversial topics in the online world…

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