Privacy is a set of curtains drawn across the windows of our lives. And technology companies are moths that will chew through more of the fabric every year if we let them, and especially if we encourage them.
An American who stores accumulated photographs in a spare bedroom or attic or self-storage space correctly presumes that those albums of visual keepsakes are off-limits to other people. Though an exhaustive inventory of the nation’s snapshots would include a minuscule percentage showing illegal acts, it would be outrageous if a photo-album manufacturer or a storage-facility employee insisted that, like it or not, their business would be investigating all of your photos, just to make sure that nothing in your collection was unlawful or immoral. We expect to be presumed innocent of nefarious acts, absent evidence to the contrary—and to be spared public or private agents rifling through our personal effects.
But that norm may not survive the digital era. For now, Apple has backed off its plan, announced last month, to install scanning software on all U.S. iPhones to help identify the vile but tiny subset of people who keep child pornography on their devices. The company will take time to “make improvements” on the idea, The Wall Street Journal reported. But ultimately, whether to proceed is up to the company’s discretion.
Apple’s original plan was to scan all the images of customers with the company’s iCloud storage service activated. Suspected sex offenders were to be flagged and reported to the relevant authorities. “Most cloud providers already scan user libraries for this information,” TechCrunch explained after the announcement. “Apple’s system is different in that it does the matching on device rather than in the cloud.”
The civil libertarians who objected to the plans raised questions that remain important: Do we want a society in which the devices that we purchase—and that we must carry to navigate the modern world—are equipped to continuously and remotely monitor us for criminal acts? Or should Americans enjoy undiminished privacy in our personal effects, including photos, when we keep them in digital rather than physical form?
Even if technology companies load all consumer devices with intrusive spyware, sex crimes won’t go away, alas. Images of child sex abuse long predate digital photography, …….