Child safety advocates disrupt Apple developer conference

CUPERTINO — About 35 protesters gathered outside Apple headquarters Monday morning through the company's annual global developers conference, demanding that the tech giant implement a system to remove child sexual abuse content from iCloud — a plan Apple had previously abandoned resulting from concerns about user privacy.

iCloud is a storage service that enables users to store and sync data across their devices, keeping information similar to photos, files, backups and passwords protected. The protesters – mostly child safety experts and activists – say the service allows perpetrators and abusers to confidentially store and share child abuse material without being caught by authorities.

Apple had been trying for years to develop a system that might discover and take away such content in iCloud. The company finally abandoned the thought in late 2023 in response to concerns from digital rights groups that a scanning system would compromise the privacy and security of all iCloud users.

Shortly thereafter, children's rights organization Heat Initiative began organizing a campaign to call on the corporate to proceed to trace down and report such material. According to the Intercept Heat is supported by dark money donors and has refused to comment on its funding sources up to now. The initiative organized Monday's protest along with child protection groups Wired Human and Brave Movement.

Monday's protest coincided with the primary day of Apple's annual Worldwide Developer's Conference, an event where the corporate declares latest tech features for its software programs. Sarah Gardner, CEO of the Heat Initiative, said Apple is leaving children's safety out of the discussion about latest technologies and desires to deal with protecting them.

“We don't want to be here, but we feel like we have to be,” Gardner said. “This is what it takes to get people's attention and get Apple to focus more on protecting children on its platform.”

As company representatives and stakeholders passed through the Apple Park Visitor Center, child safety experts and advocates chanted, “Build a future where children are protected.” Some spoke about their personal experiences with sexual abuse and expressed concerns about implementing more child safety measures.

“We are not asking for much,” said activist Sochil Martin, because the protesters' cries echoed within the background. “Apple has everything it needs to do it.”

Their concerns also come at a time when national politicians are pushing for the passage of kid safety laws, including the Kids Online Safety Act, which might establish policies to guard minors on social media platforms similar to TikTok and Facebook.

Apple declined to comment on the protest and as an alternative provided this news organization with a 2023 letter exchange between Gardner and Erik Neuenschwander, Apple's director of privacy and child safety, explaining the corporate's reasons for eliminating the system.

Neuenschwander said the introduction of such a system wouldD the safety and privacy of users and would open the door “to mass surveillance and could create the desire to search other encrypted messaging systems for content types (such as images, videos, text or audio) and content categories.”

But protester Christine Almadjian said those features should not enough to guard children or hold perpetrators accountable for possessing sexually abusive material. Almadjian, who is a component of the national coalition End Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children, said Apple must proceed to look for tactics to discover and label such content.

“We are trying to enter into a dialogue with Apple to implement these changes,” she said on Monday. “They do not consider these to be necessary measures.”

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