Is Apple Gearing Up for China-Style Internet Control in the U.S.?

Recently, Apple announced that it will deploy a new algorithm, NeuralMatch, to monitor iMessages and images on its devices. The ostensible purpose is to scan for photos containing nudity sent by or to children and also for photos of nude or seminude children. If a number of suspect images are backed up to an iCloud account, they will be decrypted and inspected, and the user reported to law enforcement. Police could then investigate or prosecute the user for possession of child pornography or for child sex abuse or other offenses. But, well-intentioned as the motive may sound, this is a matter of grave concern for privacy. Once such surveillance is begun, it opens the gates for other tech firms to follow suit, and worse, for warrantless scans for nefarious government purposes.

Coming as it does from Apple, this is a curious development in the U.S. For although Apple has bent over backward to please the Chinese government on its surveillance and censorship needs, it has vehemently resisted assisting the U.S. government. It has refused to unlock cellphones for criminal investigations and prosecutions, citing concerns about protecting the data and privacy of its customers. It has received -- and objected to -- at least 10 requests from federal courts for extracting data from locked iPhones. But now, in a complete turnabout, if Apple thinks (or its algorithm decides) that certain images are illegal, it will cooperate with the authorities.

In 2016, the FBI asked Apple to unlock a phone used by one of the Islamic terrorists who attacked the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, murdering 14 people and injuring 22. Apple declined, citing a corporate policy to never undermine the security features of its products. Following another terrorist attack at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, in 2019, Apple again rejected a government request to unlock the perpetrator’s phone. Then-Attorney General William Barr insisted that tech companies have an obligation to give law enforcement access to encrypted devices, but Apple refused. It said doing so would weaken encryption and thus jeopardize the data security of its customers.

This sacrosanctity of customer privacy, however, is not applied to its customers in China, who live under the oppressive gaze of a government that monitors every aspect of their lives. Apple assembles nearly all its products in China -- in sweatshops linked through a maze of shell companies to a gulag the Western media is blind to -- and earns a fifth of its revenue there. While it preaches about civil liberties in the U.S., it has a different policy for China. The personal data of Chinese customers is stored on servers run by a state-owned Chinese firm and encryption is not part of the equation. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can now access emails, text messages, documents, photos, and location details of all Apple users in the country. Apple even acquiesced to government requests for censorship of apps and the creation of a blacklist of apps that criticize the Chinese government.

Also suspect, along with Apple’s NeuralMatch initiative, is the U.S. government’s sudden concern about the fight against the sexual exploitation of children. The Biden administration’s policies, in fact, have enabled human trafficking at our southern border. Children have been discovered delivered to unvetted sponsors in the U.S. by actual sex offenders. Says Texas Governor Greg Abbott, “President Biden’s reckless open border policies have created a humanitarian crisis that is enriching the cartels, smugglers, and human traffickers, who often prey on and abuse unaccompanied minors.”

And this government hasn’t really been serious about sex offenses either. During the coronavirus pandemic, sex offenders, even those with multiple offenses, were released from jail, some after serving just a few days. During the shutdown, the police department in Oakland, California, suspended its I.D. and Offender and Registry Unit. The city has close to 900 registered sex offenders, and half of them were in violation of registration requirements -- which can ordinarily prompt arrest and incarceration. Neighboring San Francisco issued temporary waivers for sex offender registration, and Los Angeles relied solely on phone interviews.

The idea of scanning devices for allegedly criminal material comes from China.  In 2008, the CCP required the installation of Green Dam, an intrusive filtering software, ostensibly to protect children from harmful internet content but including the ability to block political and religious content and to actively monitor individual computer behavior. The parallels with NeuralMatch -- down to the excuse that it’s for protecting children -- are uncanny.

It’s well known that China has one of the most sophisticated and extensive Internet filtering systems in the world -- “the Great Firewall” -- one which Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and all big companies doing business in China have abetted. After Beijing blocked Google in 2010, the company hastily introduced a censored version of its site. These firms have readily signed on to pledges for internet censorship, and complied with China’s well-developed content regulation system, turning a blind eye to the repression of Falun Gong, Uighurs, and anyone opposed to the government.

The magnitude of China’s internet surveillance and monitoring regime may be gauged from the following facts. In 2013, the government was employing an estimated two million people to monitor internet content. When enterprising citizens started using VPNs to circumvent the firewall, the Great Cannon was deployed to intercept communications with any Chinese server not employing cryptographic protections. The software can adjust and replace content as it travels around the internet. And internet usage is so restricted that individuals who share rumors or lies -- a rumor according to the CCP is that which is sent to more than 5,000 people or shared more than 500 times -- faces defamation charges and up to three years in jail. Three Chinese citizens were arrested simply because they reported on the recent massive floods in China, their causes, and the death toll, and disseminated pictures of drowning victims.

China, despite the censorship and surveillance, did enjoy a period of openness on the internet. As Yaqui Wang writes, “For many years, the internet in China was seen as a channel for new thinking, or at least greater openness; Chinese citizens could go online to expose government corruption and criticize leaders. Online discussions were relatively free and open, and users, especially younger ones, had developed a penchant for learning and debating big ideas about political systems and how China should be governed; until President Xi Jinping decided to change that. In December 2015, three years after taking charge, at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, he declared his intent: freedom of information flow, idealized by the West, is an anathema to the CCP and the Chinese government.

Are we moving towards a situation no different from China, with a government that uses tech companies -- much like the Chinese government uses state-controlled shells for surveillance and other skullduggery -- as the vanguard? In view of Apple’s willingness to work within the constraints of the repressive Chinese internet system, the company’s past refusal to assist with U.S. government criminal cases, and the lack of a comprehensive American plan to put an end to the sexual exploitation of children, can the stated objectives of the proposed NeuralMatch surveillance system be believed?  Or is the real plan for Apple to lead the way to internet censorship and control in the U.S.?

With social media giants censoring conservative speech and any information contrary to the government narrative, there is reason to believe that we are approaching the end of an era of freedom on the internet. For such censorship -- enforced via tech and social media firms -- amounts to a social credit system that promotes one viewpoint and punishes anyone who dares to gainsay the accepted narrative. This is a frightening prospect. Banning and criminalizing speech that is critical of the government is usually the first step towards totalitarianism.

Image:  Alexis Bailey -- Freepngimg

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