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Apple’s CSAM detection tech is under fire — again

By Zack Whittaker

Apple has encountered monumental backlash to a new child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection technology it announced earlier this month. The system, which Apple calls NeuralHash, has yet to be activated for its billion-plus users, but the technology is already facing heat from security researchers who say the algorithm is producing flawed results.

NeuralHash is designed to identify known CSAM on a user’s device without having to possess the image or knowing the contents of the image. Because a user’s photos stored in iCloud are end-to-end encrypted so that even Apple can’t access the data, NeuralHash instead scans for known CSAM on a user’s device, which Apple claims is more privacy friendly, as it limits the scanning to just photos rather than other companies which scan all of a user’s file.

Apple does this by looking for images on a user’s device that have the same hash — a string of letters and numbers that can uniquely identify an image — that are provided by child protection organizations like NCMEC. If NeuralHash finds 30 or more matching hashes, the images are flagged to Apple for a manual review before the account owner is reported to law enforcement. Apple says the chance of a false positive is about one in one trillion accounts.

But security experts and privacy advocates have expressed concern that the system could be abused by highly resourced actors, like governments, to implicate innocent victims or to manipulate the system to detect other materials that authoritarian nation states find objectionable. NCMEC called critics the “screeching voices of the minority,” according to a leaked memo distributed internally to Apple staff.

Last night, Asuhariet Ygvar reverse-engineered Apple’s NeuralHash into a Python script and published code to GitHub, allowing anyone to test the technology regardless of whether they have an Apple device to test. In a Reddit post, Ygvar said NeuralHash “already exists” in iOS 14.3 as obfuscated code, but was able to reconstruct the technology to help other security researchers understand the algorithm better before it’s rolled out to iOS and macOS devices later this year.

It didn’t take long before others tinkered with the published code and soon came the first reported case of a “hash collision,” which in NeuralHash’s case is where two entirely different images produce the same hash. Cory Cornelius, a well-known research scientist at Intel Labs, discovered the hash collision. Ygvar confirmed the collision a short time later.

Hash collisions can be a death knell to systems that rely on cryptography to keep them secure, such as encryption. Over the years several well-known password hashing algorithms, like MD5 and SHA-1, were retired after collision attacks rendered them ineffective.

Kenneth White, a cryptography expert and founder of the Open Crypto Audit Project, said in a tweet: “I think some people aren’t grasping that the time between the iOS NeuralHash code being found and [the] first collision was not months or days, but a couple of hours.”

When reached, an Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the record. But in a background call where reporters were not allowed to quote executives directly or by name, Apple downplayed the hash collision and argued that the protections it puts in place — such as a manual review of photos before they are reported to law enforcement — are designed to prevent abuses. Apple also said that the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered is a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.

It’s not just civil liberties groups and security experts that are expressing concern about the technology. A senior lawmaker in the German parliament sent a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook this week saying that the company is walking down a “dangerous path” and urged Apple not to implement the system.

Last day to snag early-bird passes to TechCrunch Disrupt 2021

By Alexandra Ames

Don’t miss your chance to experience TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 — the startup world’s must-attend event of the season — for less than $100. Why not get the best ROI of your time while simultaneously learning about the latest industry trends and mining for opportunities that can take your startup to new levels of success?

Disrupt takes place on September 21-23, but the early-bird deal expires today, July 30 at 11:59 p.m. (PDT). Buy your Disrupt 2021 pass now and save.

Let’s talk about what you’ll experience at Disrupt. Over on the Disrupt Stage you’ll find one-on-one interviews with icons and interactive, expert-led, presentations from across the tech, investing and policy sectors. Folks like Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn and Mirror CEO Brynn Putnam. And that’s just the tip of the tech iceberg. You can check out all the speakers here.

You’ll find plenty of actionable advice and how-to tips and strategies on the Extra Crunch Stage. Take a gander at just two of the topics we have scheduled there and explore the full Disrupt agenda here.

Crafting a Pitch Deck that Can’t Be Ignored: Investors may be chasing after the hottest deals, but for founders selling their startup’s vision, it’s never been more important to communicate it in the clearest way possible. Pitch deck experts Mercedes Bent (partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners), Mar Hershenson (co-founder and managing partner, Pear VC) and Saba Karim (Techstars’ head of accelerator pipeline) dig into what’s essential, what’s unnecessary and what could just make all the difference in your next deck.

How Do You Select the Right Tech Stack: From day zero, startups have to make dozens of trade-offs when it comes to the infinite variety of tech stacks available to today’s engineers. Choose the wrong combination or direction, and a startup could be left with years of refactoring to fix the legacy damage. What are the best practices for assessing potential stacks, and how can you minimize the risk of a painful mistake? Preeti Somal (executive vice president of engineering, HashiCorp) and Jill Wetzler (head of engineering, Pilot) will discuss strategies for improving engineering right from the beginning and at every stage of a startup’s journey.

Disrupt’s virtual format provides plenty of opportunity for questions, so come prepared to ask the experts about the issues that keep you up at night.

One post can’t possibly contain all the events and opportunities of Disrupt. Don’t miss the epic Startup Battlefield competition, hundreds of early-stage startups exhibiting in the Startup Alley expo area, special breakout sessions — like the Pitch Deck Teardown — and so much more.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 offers tons of opportunity. Don’t miss out on the first one — buy your Disrupt pass today, July 30, by 11:59 p.m. (PDT) for less than $100. It’s a sweet deal!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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