Americans value their privacy. It is considered a right. Americans especially value the right to privacy from government intrusions. The Constitution’s 4th Amendment, which requires probable cause for a warrant to search or seize a person’s belongings, has been interpreted to include this right to privacy. This Constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to governmental actions. But what about the actions of private companies? Can private companies search our stuff?
For private companies to be able to search our stuff, they generally get our permission. Many people don’t realize they’re giving permission for their computers and phones to be searched because the permission is couched in the fine print of the terms and conditions of the product they’re using. And to be able to use the product, the terms and conditions must be agreed to. For example, when someone sets up a new iPhone, accepting Apple’s terms and conditions is required for the phone to be used.
Included in Apple’s new terms and conditions for its iPhone will be a term allowing a program to search phones for child pornography. The program that will search iPhones for child pornography (called Child Sexually Abusive Material in Michigan) is called NeuralHash. This program will search the phone’s contents for hash values that indicate child pornography. Hash values are essentially digital fingerprints of files. NeuralHash will search hash values as opposed to actually viewing the files. If the hash values indicate child pornographic images as defined in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) database, NeuralHash will alert the NCMEC. From there, law enforcement could be alerted, a warrant obtained, the devices seized and searched, and criminal charges filed.