The Lesson to Learn From Apple’s Tool to Flag Child Sex Abuse

As we all put more photos, documents, and videos online, how much of that data no longer belongs to us?

That’s the question many are now pondering because of a change coming to iPhones. The debate has implications for online privacy and government surveillance. It underlines how the storage of our digital data has changed over time, raising concerns about how we should conduct ourselves technologically. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. The unrest began last week when Apple introduced a software tool for iPhones to flag cases of child sex abuse. That seems reasonable, right?

This fall, the device will be included in Apple’s next mobile software update. It scans an iPhone for code linked to a database of known child pornography when photos from the device are uploaded to iCloud, Apple’s online storage service. Once there are a certain number of matches, an Apple employee reviews the photos before informing the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But some cybersecurity experts countered that the content-flagging system was invasive and infringed on people’s privacy. They warned that Apple was creating a precedent that made it simple for surveillance-heavy countries like China to pass laws requiring the company to use the technology for other purposes, such as scanning for political images unfavorable to an authoritarian government.

Child Sex Abuse

“They’ve said they don’t have any plans to do worse things with this technology, but this just feels, at this point, naïvely optimistic,” said Erica Portnoy, a technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital rightsnonprofit. In response to the backlash, Apple published a document explaining that the new system will not scan people’s private iPhone photo libraries this week. Also, a company spokesman said that the matching technology will cease to work if people disable their iPhone’s photo library from backing up images to iCloud.

But no matter how this Apple episode plays out, it reminds us how much our digital data storage has changed. In the past, most of us stored our digital photos on our personal computer drives and on miniature USB sticks. Those belonged to us alone. We increasingly store our documents and other information in “the cloud,” where big companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft host the data on their server computers. Those companies gained much more power over our information in the process.

That leads me to something I have said: It’s wise to have an exit strategy for pulling your data from the cloud if you want to leave. All it takes is a little forethought. Over the last few years, I’ve embraced a hybrid approach of storing copies of my data online and offline, so I can reap the benefits of the cloud and retain independent ownership of my data. My efforts culminated in creating an online server at home, which is essentially a private cloud. Here’s how I did that, along with other approaches to a hybrid system for storing your data.

The Hybrid Backup

Many of us have become accustomed to automatically backing up our data to Apple’s, Google’s, and Microsoft’s online servers. These convenient cloud services ensure your data is regularly backed up over the internet. But the best practice is a hybrid one: Store local copies on physical drives, too, according to Acronis, a data protection firm. Having a local backup is nice when you lack an internet connection and need immediate access to a file. “It is shocking how few people follow a hybrid backup plan,” said Topher Tebow, a senior cybersecurity researcher at Acronis. “The whole point of backups is to ensure continuity of data, and that just isn’t something that can be guaranteed with a single solution in place.”

Let Us Help You Protect Your Digital Life

To me, having local copies is essential for self-reliance. What if I get tired of paying a company’s cloud subscription fees? What if the company’s servers are hacked? Or what if the company changes the product in an unappealing way? Without a local backup, you could feel locked into a company’s ecosystem; the longer you put one-off, the more difficult it will become to pull your data out if you decide to leave. Yet only 17 percent of consumers take the hybrid approach, according to an Acronis survey last year.

Fortunately, creating a local backup isn’t hard. The first step is to safely back up your digital information to another device. For iPhone photos, the simplest option is to back up your images to a computer. On a Mac, you plug in your iPhone, open Apple’s Photos app, and import all your photos. You would use the Windows Photos app to do the same on Windows. And if you want to be extra thorough, you can make a backup of all your iPhone data with the Finder tool on Mac or the iTunes app on Windows.

Now that you have pulled your photos off your phone, you can decide what to do from there, like delete them from the cloud and port them to another cloud service such as Google Photos. From there, you can create a backup of your computer data to an external drive that plugs into your computer. Apps like Apple’s Time Machine for Macs or File History for Windows will do that for you. Just remember not to become entirely dependent on the next cloud.

The Extreme Setup: A Personal Cloud

There’s also an extreme version of the hybrid backup, which is what I do but don’t recommend for everyone. It’s to set up a so-called network attached storage device, which is a miniature server that plugs into your internet router and gives you remote access to your data. It’s like having a private cloud in your home. Building a server is not for the faint of heart. For one, the software is not easy to use. For another, it’s not cheap. An internet-connected storage device, like the Synology DS220+, costs roughly $300, and hard drives must be bought separately. But I found it was worth the investment and time. I plug my phone into my Mac weekly, which backs up data to my computer, and when I’m asleep, the Mac backs up its data to my mini server. It’s not as seamless as a company’s cloud storage but convenient enough — plus, I was tired of paying for multiple subscriptions to cloud services.

One Way Out

Even if you take a hybrid storage approach, does that get you away from Apple’s new content-flagging tool? No, said Matthew D. Green, a cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins University who has been a vocal critic of Apple’s move. There is no true escape, he said because part of the technology will reside on the phone hardware — and there’s nothing we can do to remove it. The cryptographer noted that for the first time, he was contemplating switching to a phone that used Google’s Android software instead. That would involve pulling out all the photos he had stored in Apple’s cloud. “It’s going to be so painful,” Mr. Green said. “I have 20,000 photos that go back to 2010. This is stuff I can’t bear the thought of losing.”

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!