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Apple’s new tech for targeting child abuse images draws concern

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Even a ‘carefully thought-out and narrowly scoped backdoor is still a backdoor’, claim critics of Apple’s new child protection measures.

Apple is rolling out new child protection efforts, with technology designed to detect images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on iOS systems. But while some are championing the decision, others fear the Apple CSAM features are opening the gates to privacy issues.

Three features are set to be introduced for child protection: barriers around searching for CSAM, parental alerts for explicit images on a child’s phone, and alerting law enforcement if CSAM is being collected in a user’s iCloud photos.

While these features have currently only been announced for the US, an Apple blog post said that the company’s “efforts will evolve and expand over time”.

The features were criticised on Twitter by Matthew Green, a cryptographer and security researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “This sort of tool can be a boon for finding child pornography in people’s phones,” he wrote. “But imagine what it could do in the hands of an authoritarian government?”

Non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was equally critical. “To say that we are disappointed by Apple’s plans is an understatement,” the group wrote.

“Apple can explain at length how its technical implementation will preserve privacy and security in its proposed backdoor, but at the end of the day, even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out and narrowly scoped backdoor is still a backdoor.”

But what are the Apple CSAM features and why are they drawing such heat?

Inappropriate messaging and search queries

The first is relatively straightforward – there will be new resources within Siri and Search for reporting CSAM along with the ability to intervene if users search for CSAM. A message will pop up explaining why the search is harmful and users will be guided to resources that can help.

The second feature is based around messaging. If a user on a family account is under the age of 13 and they send or receive an explicit image, it will initially be blurred out. The child will receive a notification letting them know that this form of material can be harmful and that their parents will be alerted if they choose to view or send the image.

Machine learning will be used to determine which images are sexually explicit and subsequently determine which require flagging with a parent. Apple said on-device machine learning will be used and the company “does not get access to the messages”.

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But the EFF highlighted that even a well-intentioned effort can lead to problems down the line. “All it would take to widen the narrow backdoor that Apple is building is an expansion of the machine learning parameters to look for additional types of content, or a tweak of the configuration flags to scan, not just children’s, but anyone’s accounts,” wrote the group.

It was also critical of the use of machine learning technology to detect explicit content, which can be difficult to audit, pointing to the time Facebook flagged an image of the Little Mermaid statue for nudity rules.

Detecting CSAM

The final piece of the puzzle is the CSAM detection technology. This is the most technical of the features and uses Apple’s new NeuralHash technology. This is designed to flag material that is uploaded to the cloud if it matches with existing CSAM content in the database of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US.

This process is carried out on the user’s device. Images will be translated into an unreadable string of letters and numbers, known as a hash, that is on the phone and is unique to the characteristics of that photo. The phone will also carry another set of hashes that represent the child abuse images from the database of NCMEC and other child safety organisations.

If these two hashes match, the phone will generate a cryptographic safety voucher with the match result. The company said that “private set intersection allows Apple to learn if an image hash matches the known CSAM image hashes, without learning anything about image hashes that do not match” and that this technology is key to maintaining privacy.

Apple uses a cryptographic principle called “threshold secret sharing”, meaning that contents of the vouchers cannot be interpreted by the company unless the iCloud account crosses a threshold of known CSAM content.

Once this threshold is crossed, Apple will have access to the photos and will manually check for the presence of CSAM. If it confirms that there are child abuse images, the user account will be disabled and NCMEC will be alerted.

Users will have the ability to appeal the decision, but Apple claimed that the system has “an extremely low error rate of less than one in 1trn account[s] per year”.

But Green highlighted on Twitter that the technology is very sophisticated for what is being accomplished, and that  “eventually it could be a key ingredient in adding surveillance to encrypted messaging systems”. The EFF added that “this is a decrease in privacy for all iCloud Photos users”.

These criticisms echo previous debates in the EU for features targeting CSAM, as recent measures were met with mixed responses.

It is unclear to what degree these features will roll out worldwide, but Benny Pinkas of Bar-Ilan University, who reviewed Apple’s new technology, said it may provide a solution to “a very challenging problem”.



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Big tech’s pro-climate rhetoric is not matched by policy action, report finds | Environment

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The world’s biggest tech companies are coming out with bold commitments to tackle their climate impact but when it comes to using their corporate muscle to advocate for stronger climate policies, their engagement is almost nonexistent, according to a new report.

Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Microsoft poured about $65m into lobbying in 2020, but an average of only 6% of their lobbying activity between July 2020 and June 2021 was related to climate policy, according to an analysis from the thinktank InfluenceMap, which tracked companies’ self-reported lobbying on federal legislation.

The report also sought to capture tech companies’ overall engagement with climate policy by analyzing activities including their top-level communications as well as lobbying on specific legislation. It found that climate-related engagement levels of three of the five companies – Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft – had declined compared to the previous year.

Tech companies, which have some of the deepest pockets in corporate America, have been racing to come out with increasingly ambitious climate pledges. Amazon has a target to be net zero by 2040 and to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and Facebook has a target of net zero emissions for its entire supply chain by 2030.

In 2020, Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all the carbon the company has ever emitted. Apple has committed to become carbon neutral across its whole supply chain by 2030.

And Google has pledged to power its operations with 100% carbon-free energy by 2030, without using renewable certificates to offset any fossil-generated power. “The science is clear, we have until 2030 to chart a sustainable course for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change,” the Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in a video announcing the policy.

Yet this strong pro-climate rhetoric is not being matched by action at a policy level, according to the report. “These gigantic companies that completely dominate the stock market are not really deploying that political capital at all,” said the InfluenceMap executive director, Dylan Tanner.

Tech companies have not been entirely silent. Apple, for example, has expressed support for the Biden administration’s proposed clean energy standard, which aims for all US-generated electricity to be renewable by 2035.

But these efforts are significantly outweighed by those of big oil and gas companies, which have ramped up their climate lobbying over the same timeframe, according to the report. “Most of their political advocacy is devoted to climate change and it’s negative,” said Tanner.

A lack of engagement is especially disappointing given the new momentum around climate action under the Biden administration, said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive and now executive director of Climate Voice, which mobilizes tech workers to lobby their companies on climate action. “The dominant business voice on these issues is advocating against the kind of policies that we need,” he said.

Joe Biden’s $3.5tn budget reconciliation bill, which includes large investments for climate action, is facing fierce opposition from some industry groups. The US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s most powerful business lobbying group, has said it will “do everything we can to prevent this tax raising, job killing reconciliation bill from becoming law”. All of the tech companies, with the exception of Apple, are members of the Chamber.

“Our best chance to lead the planet to safety in the race against climate change is through this reconciliation bill, yet InfluenceMap has shown that big tech is still MIA on climate in Congress,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and longtime advocate for climate legislation.

Microsoft and Apple declined to comment on the report and Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company engages at local, state and international levels to “actively advocate for policies that promote clean energy, increase access to renewable electricity, and decarbonize the transportation system”.

A Facebook spokesperson said “we’re committed to fighting climate change and are taking substantive steps without waiting for any legislative action”, adding that the company supports the Paris climate agreement goals and helped found the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

But these actions are not enough given the scale of the crisis, said Tanner. The UN warned in a report published on Friday that even if current climate emissions targets are met, the world is still on a “catastrophic pathway” for 2.7C of heating by the end of the century. “We’re running out of time,” Tanner said, “physically on climate but also on a public policy level.”

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Some of you have dirty green credentials • The Register

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TechUK – the UK’s digital trade association representing computer giants and start-ups alike – has called on firms to check their green credentials and make sure they stand up to scrutiny.

The warning comes as UK businesses were told to brush up on their eco-claims or risk public humiliation and enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Businesses have until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims – such as those regarding energy consumption, packaging, recycling, and product lifecycle assessments – comply with the law and are not simply an exercise in greenwashing.

As part of its efforts to steer companies, the CMA has published a six-point Green Claims Code in a bid to make it clear that anyone spouting eco-friendly claims “must not omit or hide important information” and “must consider the full life cycle of the product.”

The CMA is targeting sectors that some onlookers may regard as low hanging fruit including textiles and fashion, energy-hungry travel and transport, and fast-moving consumer goods.

However, any sector and the companies that operate within it – including tech – could fall within the CMA’s crosshairs.

In a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief exec of the CMA, said: “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve. Any business that fails to comply with the law risks damaging its reputation with customers and could face action from the CMA.”

However, there are worries the new rules may lead to confusion. In its evidence to the CMA, techUK said the six principles set out in the guidance were “not specific enough” and also called for more information to help tech firms. It also warned that different variables made in lifecycle assessments could lead to misleading results [PDF].

In a statement, Susanne Baker, associate director for Climate, Environment and Sustainability, techUK, told us: “The CMA’s guidance is important for any company making a green claim about their services, products and company. With more green claims being made by the tech sector than ever before, it’s absolutely vital that these aren’t deemed to be greenwashing.

“Firms have until the new year to address this and will need to think carefully about any green claim they make, be sure they can substantiate them, that they aren’t misleading, and are truthful and accurate,” she said.

The CMA announced that it was investigating the impact of green marketing on consumers last year when it found that 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading – suggesting that thousands of businesses could be breaking the law.

In June, The Register reported how a shortage of plastics – rather than a desire to protect the planet — could be one reason why recycled plastics may be working their way into laptops and other gadgetry.

Amazon recently found itself fending off a whistle-blower’s claims alleging it dumped unsold goods to landfill, and later bragged that it had achieved lower carbon “intensity” in its business practices. The latter claim was shot down by an unimpressed scientist close to The Reg who remarked that the fact Amazon’s business was growing was not “helpful to Earth”, and the fact it polluted less per unit of activity didn’t change the bottom line “which is that they are polluting more this year than they did last year.”

Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced the electric car maker will stop accepting Bitcoin payments for its vehicles, due to the “increasing use” of fossil fuels, particularly coal, to support Bitcoin’s electricity-hungry mining and transaction processing.

An Intel sponsored report by non-profit Resilience First, highlighted in June the role of tech in reaching net-zero carbon emission goals. However, making chips has been a dirty business, with a 2002 study concluding that a single 2g semiconductor chip required a whopping 1.6kg of secondary fossil fuels and 72g of chemical inputs to be put into production. ®

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Fivetran nears five times its unicorn valuation as it plans further growth

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The data integration business growing its EMEA HQ in Dublin is set for further expansion following a $5.6bn valuation and key acquisition.

Silicon Valley-headquartered Fivetran has announced $565m in Series D funding alongside a deal to acquire HVR.

This latest funding round sees the automated data integration provider’s value reach $5.6bn just over a year after it first reached unicorn status.

The funding round from new and existing investors included General Catalyst, CEAS Investments and Matrix Partners. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, which also brought in new investors Iconiq Capital, D1 Capital Partners and YC Continuity.

In total, Fivetran has raised $730m to date. And in tandem with its Series D funding round, the company also announced a $700m cash and stock deal to acquire data replication business HVR.

‘Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure’
– MARTIN CASADO, A16Z

For Fivetran’s mission to help businesses make use of the data they have, in a way that is quicker and requires fewer resources, HVR brings database replication performance along with enterprise-grade security.

“HVR is a recognised leader for enterprise database replication and shares our same vision – to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity,” said Fivetran CEO George Fraser. “Their product is the perfect complement to our automated data integration technology and will be instrumental for us to help enterprise organisations that want to improve their analytics with a modern data stack.”

Fraser added that the latest injection of funding from investors will enable the company to expand its capabilities and accelerate its global growth.

Fivetran established its EMEA HQ in Dublin in 2018. The following year, fresh investment saw the company plan to double its Irish workforce. Last summer, a $100m funding round saw these expansion plans furthered.

In terms of market opportunity, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado says Fivetran is a “critical component” of the modern data stack, which represents “a paradigm shift for global enterprises, with billions of dollars of revenue at stake”.

“Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure,” said Casado.

The acquisition deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close in early October, subject to regular approvals.

Customers from both companies are expected to benefit from each of the business offerings. On the side of Fivetran, this client list includes Autodesk, DocuSign, Forever 21, Lionsgate and Square, while HVR services dozens of Fortune 500 brands.

“Combining HVR and Fivetran will enable a next-generation solution that will better inform business decisions by providing the freshest data available,” said HVR CEO Anthony Brooks-Williams.

“We’re thrilled to be joining forces with Fivetran and look forward to what this incredible opportunity will provide for our growing team, partners and customers.”

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