Child safety advocates disrupt Apple developer conference

Protesters chant outside Apple’s headquarters demanding that the tech company implement more child safety measures in its products, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Cupertino, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group )

CUPERTINO — About 35 protesters gathered at Apple headquarters Monday morning during the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference to demand that the tech giant add a system to remove child pornography on iCloud — a company that Apple had previously abandoned it due to concerns about user privacy.

iCloud is a storage service that allows users to store and sync data across their devices, keeping information including photos, files, backups, and passwords secure. The protesters – made up primarily of child safety experts and advocates – say the service allows perpetrators and abusers to confidently store and share child exploitation material without getting caught by authorities.

Apple has spent years trying to design a system that could identify and remove this type of content on iCloud. The company ultimately abandoned the idea in late 2023, in response to concerns from digital rights groups that an analytics system would compromise the privacy and security of all iCloud users.

Shortly after, the children’s advocacy group Heat Initiative began organizing a campaign to demand that the company continue to move forward in detecting and reporting these materials. According to Intercept, Heat is supported by “dark money donors” and the group has declined to comment on its funding sources in the past. The initiative, in collaboration with child protection groups Wired Human and the Brave Movement, organized Monday’s protest.

Monday’s protest coincided with the first day of Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, an event where the company announces new technology features for its software. Sarah Gardner, CEO of the Heat Initiative, said Apple is leaving child safety aside in its conversations about new technology and needs to focus on protecting them.

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

As company officials and stakeholders passed through the Apple Park Welcome Center, child safety experts and advocates shouted, “Build a future where children are protected.” Some spoke about their personal experiences with sexual abuse and expressed concerns about putting more safety measures in place for children.

“We’re not asking for much,” activist Sochil Martin said as protesters’ chants echoed in the background. “Apple has everything in its hands to achieve this.”

Their concerns also come as national leaders urge passage of child safety bills, including the Kids Online Safety Act, which would establish guidelines to protect minors on social media platforms including TikTok and Facebook.

Apple declined to comment on the protest and instead provided this news organization with a 2023 letter exchange between Gardner and Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s director of user privacy and child safety, which addressed the reasons given by the company to abandon the system.

Neuenschwander said implementing one system would compromised security and privacy of users, and would open the door “to mass surveillance and could create a desire to search for other encrypted messaging systems across content types (such as images, videos, text or l ‘audio) and content categories’.