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Activists denounce iPhone surveillance plan at Apple’s Boylston Street store

Protesters from Fight for the Future demonstrate in front of the Apple Boylston Street store the day before Apple rolled out its new iPhone. They were protesting Apple's plan to add spyware software that will scan all photos and messages to detect child pornography, saying that the move could prompt other technology companies to adopt similar systems, enabling them to monitor the activities of their customers.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Privacy activists showed up outside Apple retail stores in Boston and 10 other US cities on Monday evening to protest the company’s plan to monitor millions of iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches for the presence of child pornography.

The Boston gathering, which attracted a handful of protesters to Apple’s Boylston Street store, took place the day before Apple’s rollout of its new iPhone and other devices, and was held even though Apple has said it’s delaying the release of the phone-monitoring software in question.

“I think their intentions are good,” said Sarah Roth-Gaudette, executive director of Fight for the Future, the online privacy group that organized the protests. But she added that Apple was “trying to find a technological solution to what I think is a social problem.”


Roth-Gaudette said that if Apple proceeds with its plan, other technology companies would adopt similar systems, enabling them to monitor the activities of their customers. “Mass surveillance is not the kind of world I want my kids to grow up in,” she said.

The Apple system is designed to intercept pornographic images of children that are routinely shared among sexual predators. Law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have built up databases containing thousands of such images.

Apple wants to install encrypted files on each user’s device containing the digital fingerprints of known pornographic images. Whenever a user puts images on his device, they’d be checked against the fingerprint file. If an image matches one of the fingerprints, the software would notify Apple, which could confirm that the image was pornographic and could report the user to NCMEC.

Apple has taken heavy fire from civil liberties groups ever since announcing the plan in early August. Critics allege that the same methods could be used to enable Apple to monitor all manner of personal communications, possibly at the behest of a repressive government. For instance, the same method could be used to crack down on political dissent in China, where Apple sells millions of phones.


So earlier this month, Apple hit the pause button. “Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers, and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features,” the tech giant said in a statement.

“From where we’re sitting, a delay is a good sign,” said Evan Greer, Fight For the Future’s director. “It says that Apple is hearing the backlash.”

But Greer said the new surveillance system should be canceled altogether. “There really is no safe way to do what they’ve proposed,” she said.

In addition, Roth-Gaudette predicted that if Apple carries out its plan, Google would add a similar feature to its Android operating system, the world’s most popular smartphone platform. If that were to happen, she said, smartphone users worldwide could be under constant surveillance without their knowledge.

But NCMEC, which is working with Apple on the surveillance system, still favors the plan.

“Apple’s expanded protection for children is a game changer,” said an e-mailed statement from the group’s president, John Clark. “With so many people using Apple products, these new safety measures have lifesaving potential for children who are being enticed online and whose horrific images are being circulated in child sexual abuse material.”


In a separate development, Apple on Monday issued urgent software updates to patch a flaw that enabled software from the Israeli firm NSO Group to easily seize control of iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, or Mac personal computers. NSO sells its software to governments for use in law enforcement and intelligence operations.

Last month, researchers at the University of Toronto discovered that a flaw in Apple’s iMessage software enabled the NSO software to take control of a device by sending it a tainted message. Millions of Apple devices with unpatched software are susceptible to this attack.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him @GlobeTechLab.