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Tech this week: Apple delays child abuse scanning plans, Reddit cracks down on COVID misinformation

Apple said on Friday, September 3, 2021 it's delaying its plan to scan U.S. iPhones for images of child sexual abuse.
Apple said on Friday, September 3, 2021 it's delaying its plan to scan U.S. iPhones for images of child sexual abuse.   -   Copyright  Matthias Schrader/Associated Press
By Ian Smith  & AP

Apple announced on Friday that it's delaying its plan to scan US iPhones for images of child sexual abuse, saying it needs more time to refine the system before releasing it.

The company revealed last month that it was working on a tool to detect known images of child sexual abuse, which would work by scanning files before they're uploaded to iCloud. It had also planned to introduce a separate tool to scan users’ encrypted messages for sexually explicit content.

"Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers, and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features," Apple said in an update.

Apple's delay 'the right move'

The tech giant had said in its initial announcement that the latest changes will roll out this year as part of updates to its operating software for iPhones, Macs and Apple Watches.

Matthew Green, a top cryptography researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told AP in August that the system could be used to frame innocent people by sending them seemingly innocuous images designed to trigger matches for child pornography. That could fool Apple’s algorithm and alert law enforcement.

Not long after Green and privacy advocates sounded warnings, a developer claimed to have found a way to reverse-engineer the matching tool, which works by recognising the mathematical “fingerprints” that represent an image.

Green said on Friday that Apple’s delay was the right move and suggested that the company talk to technical and policy communities and the general public before making such a big change that threatens the privacy of everyone's photo library.

"You need to build support before you launch something like this," he said.

"This was a big escalation from scanning almost nothing to scanning private files".

Green said Apple might have been blindsided by the widespread pushback to a policy aimed at child safety because it was so secretive in developing the new technique, treating it the way it launches a new consumer product.

Tali Arbel/Associated Press
Social platform Reddit has announced it will crackdown on COVID misinformation.Tali Arbel/Associated Press

Reddit begins to tackle COVID misinformation

Reddit has banned an anti-vaxx and anti-mask subreddit after over a hundred popular Reddit communities went dark in protest against the platform's inaction on COVID misinformation.

Reddit initially refused to ban the subreddits spreading misinformation. However, it announced on Wednesday that it had removed r/NoNewNormal which had been identified by other users as being a mass purveyor of COVID misinformation.

The subreddit had 124,000 subscribers and had taken part in brigading, which is an activity where users are sent to rival discussion groups to flood the comments and harass them. It was this behaviour that led to the ban.

Reddit also said that it is quarantining 54 other COVID-19 denial subreddits. This means it has flagged the groups’ content as having the potential to be “highly offensive or upsetting” and prevents it from showing up on the normal homepage.

It also promised to “build a new reporting feature for moderators to allow them to better provide us signal when they see community interference”.

These changes came about after other subreddits went dark in protest. r/Futurology, which has over 15 million members, announced their decision to take part in the protest, saying: "Futurology has gone private to protest Reddit’s inaction on Covid-19 misinformation. Weaponised misinformation is a key problem shaping our future. Reddit won’t enforce their policies against misinformation, brigading, and spamming".

Apple to roll out digital driver’s licence and State IDs

Eight states in the US will roll out a feature allowing users to add their driver’s licence and state IDs to Apple Wallet for iPhone and Apple Watch to use at security at participating airports, Apple announced on Wednesday.

The plan was first unveiled in a presentation in June. But there are some privacy concerns about handing over smartphones to police or security officials.

Apple says that there won’t be a need to unlock the phones or hand them over when going through airport security.

"The addition of driver’s licences and state IDs to Apple Wallet is an important step in our vision of replacing the physical wallet with a secure and easy-to-use mobile wallet," said Jennifer Bailey, Apple’s vice president of Apple Pay and Apple Wallet.

"We are excited that the TSA and so many states are already on board to help bring this to life for travellers across the country using only their iPhone and Apple Watch, and we are already in discussions with many more states as we’re working to offer this nationwide in the future".

Arizona and Georgia are the first states to adopt the feature and Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah will follow, though the company did not specify a timeline.