Apple Cannot Give You Privacy

Listen to the audio version of this essay here.

Dear fellow privacy seekers,

Apple announced in early August that it will be releasing, in a future update, three “Child Safety” changes to their software. First, they will start scanning photos uploaded to iCloud in search of child pornography. iCloud is the cloud storage that Apple gives out to each of its users, meaning that nearly a billion people who use iCloud would be affected. Within the same update Apple will also scan messages sent through the default Apple Messages application to search for nudity and blur it out for child accounts. Third and finally, it will monitor Siri searches for child pornography and alert the user that what he or she is doing is illegal and that they have “at-risk thoughts and behavior.” In summary, Apple doesn’t believe in privacy as they’ve often claimed, and their propaganda about “What you do on your phone stays on your phone” has been a lie. More than that, they have given in to the security and safety fallacy like so many other tyrannical institutions. I’m going to unpack briefly what exactly this “child safety” update means and then take a step back to assess Apple as a privacy company, and how Apple’s argument is emblematic of a false understanding of what privacy really is and what safety really is.

Apple has shared their vision of this update on their website, and you can read it at https://www.apple.com/child-safety to see the three changes they are planning to make in a future operating system update for iPhones, Mac computers, Apple Watches, and iPads.

Basically, Apple will—perhaps in September or October of 2021—give all of its devices the ability to scan photos uploaded to iCloud for images that correspond to known images of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), which are documented according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). So this is a partnership with Apple and this organization, and it is pretty clear that Apple has been under pressure to do this for some time. Apple thinks it is doing this maneuver in a clever way that protects your anonymity—somewhat. By adding software to your phone that turns images into codes, or hashes, Apple can then compare these hashes to the NCMEC database of forbidden images. So in one sense they are not “looking at” your photos. But if a photo matches one of these forbidden hashes, Apple says they will close your account and report you to the authorities.

The equally distressing part of the update involves Apple monitoring messages sent through their default Messages application. Such messages will be monitored for images that contain nudity and in the case of the accounts of children, it will display a warning and in certain cases alert parents. Finally, the Siri and Search functions (which you can access by swiping down on your iPhone) of your Apple devices will also monitor what you are searching for, and if it is anything pertaining to child pornography, it will display a warning that what you’re doing is illegal and encourage you to seek help.

A lot of people are upset about this update, and for good reason. Apple has put in place surveillance mechanisms which, even if they aren’t harmful now, will almost certainly be later. Comedian Bill Maher said that “it's like if a company that sold you a safe said, 'Oh but we're going to stop by sometimes when you're not home to make sure you're not keeping naked pictures of kids in it." I’m glad to see someone calling out Apple, though we should be clear that Apple is not selling us a safe, and they’re not exactly seeing everything that’s in it—at least not now. Apple has made its intentions clear over the years. It scrapped its end-to-end encryption—a term, by the way, which doesn’t mean anything unless it is also “zero knowledge,” meaning the owner doesn’t have keys—in early 2021 after the FBI complained that it slowed its investigations. Apple has always brandished privacy as something that only it can provide, and only if you agree to live in its walled garden. It turns out the walled garden is a trap, a false utopia as all utopias are, and, let us reiterate: there can be no privacy in a top-down, centralized system.

Let’s also step back and address the obvious thing. Does anything think that at its core this new Apple policy is being put in place to protect children, full stop? Protecting children is the excuse used by every tyrant who wants to eat away at the freedom and privacy of people. I recall a political cartoon where Uncle Sam—the emblem of the US government—is in a gift shop being asked by an NSA attendant how he wants his surveillance package to be wrapped: “Terrorism or protecting children,” the NSA man asks. Do you really think that child abusers are going to continue to upload photos to iCloud, if they were every doing that in the first place? The people who are going to suffer are one billion people who now have an Apple system that is only going to encroach more and more. Just note the language of the third part of the update in which someone searches for child pornography: “Material depicting the sexual abuse of children is illegal. Anonymous helplines and guidance exist for adults with at-risk thoughts and behavior.” At-risk thoughts and behavior is warranted in that particular case, but imagine that kind of language being used for anything else. “At-risk thoughts and behavior” is Orwellian stuff that we’re already seeing around us today as a way to censor controversial ideas.

Before we analyze Apple’s argument, let’s add some further context. The first part of this update affects people who use iCloud, which I never advocate using and which I have never turned on when handling my own Apple devices. (By the way, I only own Apple devices because I need to understand them for my clients and my audience. They serve no other purpose in my life and need not in yours.) If you have an iPhone, go to Settings > Apple ID (Your Name) > and see if iCloud is turned on. If you rejected iCloud when starting up your iPhone, you’re fine. Continuing on: if you don’t use Apple’s default texting app, Messages, you won’t be subject to Apple’s censorship in this case; the same applies for using Siri or Search. So for people who have already followed my advice to avoid iCloud, Messages, or Siri, and who have found easy alternatives to these applications, this particular update isn’t that important. Well, it is important to the extent that Apple has now played its cards: cards showing that they are willing to monitor your Apple device more than you would think.

A bit more context. The truth is, cloud storage companies such as Microsoft and Dropbox already scan you photos for this kind of nasty and evil stuff, and even for politically incorrect things: check out Microsoft’s Services Agreement where it forbids “offensive language.” You sign up for this surveillance when you use the service. Apple is just jumping on the bandwagon, because now that they’ve given up end-to-end encryption they are likely coming under fire for not surveying the data sent through their services. Let me say as well, ladies and gentlemen, as I explained in past episodes such as “Renting Culture as Slavery” that when you sign up for a subscription or service, you are giving away your ownership and privacy—how could you not be? The idea of cloud storage is that a company owns your files because you can’t make enough storage available on your hard drive to own them yourself. By all means let’s have expectations for companies like Apple and demand as a consumer that they do what we want them to do. But never forget what a cloud service is. It’s not yours.

But I’ll go further, because there is something more fundamental at work here. Apple cannot protect your secrets. Why? Because a secret only exists if you and only you have access to it. Privacy is not a state of being that someone can grant you. Privacy is a state in which no one is granting you anything. Privacy of your files exists when you own them on your own hard drive and never upload them to the Internet. Privacy exists in messaging when you talk to someone in person—or, maybe, when you share thoughts to them with a messaging program that is open source and in which the creator cannot gain access. Apple cannot give you privacy. Your government cannot give you privacy. You only have privacy when neither of these institutions has any involvement in your life. Privacy is decentralization, self-sufficiency, and physical ownership.

Let me also destroy Apple’s argument about their role as protectors. They say on their website that “At Apple, our goal is to create technology that empowers people and enriches their lives — while helping them stay safe.” Stay safe? Are you my mother or a phone designer? Stick to your overpriced and under-powered devices. Apple is following the assumption, like the dictators destroying humanity right now over this pandemic of fear, that security and safety trump freedom and privacy. They don’t and they never will. Privacy and freedom do not involve coercion against other people. Security does—when it is imposed as policy. The job of a communication device is to allow you to do your thing and to keep your data as secret as possible. Not to scan every photo that it comes across in hopes of finding a needle in a haystack. How predictable that the FBI convinced Apple to stop their encryption path. Here’s another anti-American and corrupt institution that forgets that the American Bill of Rights is about disrupting the police. It is about preserving the freedom and privacy that sustain any successful society and any thriving human culture—and are the core values that under-gird and supersede every other.

OKAY SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Find replacements for iCloud, Messages, and Siri. You absolutely don’t have to use these services. To replace iCloud, simply turn it off in your settings in the way I described earlier. Transfer any files you have to your physical storage on your Apple device. Most people back up their files either because they run out of space on their device—in which case they might reassess their minimalist philosophy (Watch my first podcast episode “Get Your Digital Life in Order”)—or they buy in to the fear that they could lose these things for good. Sure, you can lose any digital file, and it’s wise to backup, but there are other ways to back them up. And you have those 128 gigabytes of storage on your physical device for a reason.

I actually don’t recommend any cloud storage option, because by putting your files online you’re exposed to hacks, breaches, human error, and changes of service. If you had to use a cloud storage temporarily, you might choose Proton Drive, I guess, but look: rely on extra physical hard drives, external hard drives, and USB storage drives as much as you can. SSDs with their crazy speed have made this a breeze. They’re not as inconvenient as you think if you create the habit. More crucially, reevaluate how many files you keep around. You can certainly avoid a cloud storage option by spending a few Saturday mornings cleaning out your junk files and staying lean. And if your goal is to backup photos or your other important account files to a computer from your iPhone, then plug the thing into your computer, load up iTunes, and make the transfer. It’s a few more steps, but it’s simply the price you pay for increased ownership, privacy, and security. Avoiding iCloud is not difficult at all provided you realize that you are using it.

Moving along, we have Messages. I don’t recommend ever using this. Get your contacts on Signal, or Wire, or Session, or even WhatsApp (if absolutely necessary). There’s no reason to message anyone through the default Messages application. If you’re messaging a stranger or someone who doesn’t have a secure messaging app, then you can download something like MySudo, which allows you to send regular text messages without involving Apple. Problem solved.

For Siri, make sure she is disabled by going to your settings and then scrolling down until you find her. Turn off everything. I also recommend keeping your phone away from you as much as you can or to plug in a tool such as a Mic Lock, which fakes out the device into thinking you have a microphone and ensures it is not listening. I don’t recommend ever using automated search features like Siri or Hey Google. Spend a few seconds and perform the research that you need by typing it in yourself.

Of course, the ultimate solution if you’re disillusioned with Apple is to stop buying their products. I’ve never been interested in Apple devices for the reason that I like devices that have good performance and are cheap. Apple is neither. Sure, they have slightly lower failure rates than competitors, but they also cost twice as much. Apple is also increasingly getting rid of customization, whether that is building their own computer components and shutting out the open ecosystem of computing, or preventing one from removing a phone batteries or repairing a MacBook without voiding the warranty. Android phones are not a death sentence, and something like a Google Pixel can be easily modded to run GrapheneOS, which gets rid of Google from the device. Windows and Linux laptops are perfectly fine these days. I love a good cheap Acer laptop running Linux, or a Lenovo laptop, or a more expensive but open-source and customizable System76 laptop. Will you have to adapt? Yes. But that’s actually good for your brain—and good for your privacy.

As a parting thought, consider reducing the role of your phone in your life. It is quite possible to use a computer for everything instead of a phone these days. That includes making phone calls and sending texts. Apple is doing us a favor with this anti-privacy update, reminding us that phones are no place for privacy. And reminding us that trying to dish out privacy from On High is exactly the opposite of what privacy is.

Yours in peace and privacy,

Gabriel Custodiet

(Please consider picking up a copy of The Watchman Guide to Privacy for a great overview of private living—and to support this show. I ask also that you subscribe, rate my content, and otherwise publicize this channel if you get any value from it. Please do me that favor. Thanks!)