A Guide for Parents to Apple’s New Child Pornography Surveillance by Sexting


Apple said it would monitor devices for images of child sexual abuse and report violators to police. While the issues surrounding privacy and technology are nuanced and passionate, the intentions are lofty – the less people who exploit children for pornography, the better. But as a father of boys on the cusp of puberty and cell phone ownership, I realize that Apple’s announcement not only changed the privacy conversation I will have with them. , but makes it more urgent. Parents now need to stress to teens that they shouldn’t assume the privacy of their digital communications. Someone in a dark room somewhere will likely see their nudes, and that won’t be the person they fall for. In addition, the potential results could be extremely significant.

I wish it was hyperbole. It’s not.

A quick look at what Apple intends to do: An algorithm will analyze users’ images as they are loaded into iPhotos and compare their digital signature with an independent database of abuse images sex on children. Once a match has been determined, the image will be evaluated by a human who will then alert law enforcement if deemed appropriate. The problem is, there is a lot of unexplained things.

Parents can make reasonable assumptions about the risk to their children based on what is already known. First, adolescents have already been prosecuted for distributing child pornography and entered into sex offender registries for otherwise benign sexting between consenting partners of the same age. Second, Apple’s announcement lacks detail. What keeps the human critic from looking at false positives which could include nude images taken by a teenager himself? Further, what prevents the human examiner from contacting law enforcement about otherwise innocent images that they might deem illegal?

For this parent, this poses a serious conundrum. Like it or not, I have to recognize and accept that my boys are exploring and will continue to explore their sexuality. It is a normal and universal characteristic of human development. In the early ages, it was playing “doctor” or sneaking into a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”. And it’s based on a deep sense of curiosity about what bodies look like and what they do.

To date, our conversations about their bodies have been frank and honest. We don’t use euphemisms to talk about their genitals and urge privacy rather than shame when they engage in self-exploration. But my boys are getting older and the curiosity and exploration will extend beyond themselves sooner than I realize. And I would be naive to imagine that in order to facilitate this exploration, they wouldn’t use all the tools at their disposal, be it a couch cushion or a cell phone.

And this is where Apple’s announcement will greatly influence our ongoing conversations about bodies and privacy. Bodies are good and wonderful, and it’s normal to want to share them with other people as we age and develop intimate relationships. But when it comes to privacy, there should be no assumption that any digital communication made on any device is private. In a way, it’s a riff on conservative religious teachings – “God is always watching! – intended to scare children from exploring sexuality. Except in this case, the omnipotent presence is not a deity but an overzealous, fallible, and highly intrusive for-profit corporation. In many ways, God is much less threatening.

So, with their first cell phones, they will receive a new sexual discourse: If you have to play “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” do it in person behind closed doors. Because if you do it by texting, your privacy, your body, and maybe even your freedom could be lost.


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