Could Apple be a threat to religious freedom?

That is not a headline I ever thought I would need to write; but times are changing rapidly, and as Christians we need to keep up with the changes. We should be aware of issues and threats which for now, might be in the distant horizon. That way, we can do something about them, in concert with others who observe similar dangers.

You cannot seek to protect religious freedom without being concerned about freedom for everyone – not just freedom for people of all faiths, but freedom for people with values that are very different from our own. This is because religious freedom is intimately bound up with other freedoms we used to take for granted – freedoms of thought, of conscience, of speech and association (that is, the right to form organisations with people who share similar ideas or values). Every one of those freedoms is under attack in Australia – sometimes from governments, other times from businesses, non-government organisations or Twitter mobs. If you only have freedom of religion, but not freedom of speech or association, you will be worshipping alone and talking to yourself.

The Human Rights Law Alliance has been doing a great job in drawing attention to Christians who are subject to such attacks; but perhaps the people experiencing most persecution in Australia and other English-speaking countries are feminists who support sex-based rights. Holding such conventional and long-accepted ideas as that women are defined, biologically, by chromosomes and reproductive function, and that women’s sports, changing facilities and restrooms should be restricted to biological females, the most prominent of them have experienced massive campaigns to drive them out of their jobs, or otherwise to censor them. This is particularly a problem in universities, including those in Australia. Teaching scientific facts concerning biology is being characterised as ‘transphobic’ and ‘dangerous’ in some of the world’s top universities now.

As Christians, if we are to persuade governments to protect our long-standing freedoms from the assaults of radicals, we have to stand up for the freedom of all people within the limits of reasonable laws.  I have elaborated on the erosion of freedom at greater length elsewhere.

So what’s the issue with Apple? Parts of the tech community are now up in arms about a major change in policy by Apple which potentially has huge ramifications. Apple has hitherto been famous for its end-to-end encryption, preventing anyone from accessing material on the iPhone without knowing the passcode. It has maintained a principled resistance to law enforcement bodies getting access to encrypted material, by not building in any ‘backdoor’ to allow such access.

Now, for the very best of reasons, it is changing its policy. It is introducing new child protection measures which will help protect children and young people from viewing sexually explicit photographs using iMessage, and will notify parents when a photo is received or sent. This works through Apple family sharing. Because Apple is told the dates of birth of family members, it knows whether a phone user is under 13 (with higher protective standards applying to this age group) or 13-17 years old. These measures are entirely commendable. They will provide parents with greater tools to monitor their children’s usage of technology and make text messaging, through Apple’s system at least, safer.

A new and worrying step in allowing for a comprehensive surveillance state

Apple is also making changes that will automatically scan photos that will be uploaded to iCloud. To be technical about it, they are not actually scanning the photos themselves but looking for ‘hashes’ – unique number strings – that are represented in the photos. The effect is the same. If enough photos match pictures of children held in a large US database held by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this can be flagged to law enforcement agencies. Again, this is very commendable. It will allow law enforcement bodies to arrest users, and possibly providers, of child pornography who are not technologically sophisticated. This is likely to lead to more arrests – probably not of the worst offenders, who operate on the ‘dark web’, but at least some users. Sophisticated technology users will have plenty of ways to evade detection.

It is very good to see Apple doing more to support the fight against the sexual exploitation of children. However, what is concerning is the method by which this is achieved. Apple’s new system operates by scanning the photos, or number strings within photos, on people’s phones. For now, it will only scan photos that are being backed up to iCloud. Users can choose whether or not to upload their photos to iCloud by controlling the settings on their iPhone.

The problem is that the very same technology could be used to scan anything on your phone, anything on your iPad, anything on your computer, for any purpose whatsoever. That is, it represents a new and worrying step in allowing for a comprehensive surveillance state more powerful than that imagined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel, 1984. To draw an analogy, the new technology is a little like giving Apple the keys to your home, telling it the location of your photograph albums, and allowing it to look through them whenever it wants. If the same technology extends to other documents (and technologically, this is straightforward) then it is like giving Apple access to your private diaries as well.

Apple is not alone in this of course. Google scans every email sent through Gmail for advertising purposes. All communications in the Chinese service, WeChat, are monitored and scanned. Messages are not encrypted. WeChat is ubiquitous in China. Without it, booking and paying for services is very difficult indeed – as I once found out, trying to order breakfast in a restaurant in Shanghai airport which would not take cash or western credit cards.

Top international experts are warning of the implications of Apple’s new move. Prof. Matthew Green, a cybersecurity expert at John Hopkins University, writes:

This sort of tool can be a boon for finding child pornography in people’s phones. But imagine what it could do in the hands of an authoritarian government?

Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, also sounds warnings:

This is an Apple-built and operated surveillance system that could very easily be used to scan private content for anything they or a government decides it wants to control. Countries where iPhones are sold will have different definitions on what is acceptable.


He notes that this is not necessary to support the work of child protection. Whatsapp, which is fully encrypted, reported more than 400,000 cases last year to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

We all welcome the utilisation of technology if it will be used for purposes such as arresting users of child pornography or identifying terrorists; but so often when governments are authorised to invade privacy for such purposes, these mechanisms quickly become used for a host of other purposes.


The implications for misuse by authoritarian governments are chilling. Consider the increased risk to religious freedom in countries such as China where people of faith are already experiencing a level of persecution and digital surveillance that was unimaginable even five years ago. The technology on Apple devices could be used to identify people of religious faith through the documents on their hard drives, and face-scanning photographs on hard-drives to identify groups of believers.

Countries such as China may well make it a condition for Apple products to be sold in that country, that the company makes available to the government its full capacity for surveillance. Apple’s response to this concern is to promise that it will steadfastly refuse all demands from governments to extend its surveillance capacity. However, Apple has already had to make huge compromises on its commitments to user privacy in order to do business in China, where it manufactures its smartphones and makes a fifth of its revenue. There is no reason to believe that China, and other countries like it, will not make further demands on businesses like Apple. When companies have to make a choice between human rights and profits, in a huge consumer market such as China, we cannot assume that they will disadvantage their shareholders by maintaining their principles.

And this is the dilemma. We all welcome the utilisation of technology if it will be used for purposes such as arresting users of child pornography or identifying terrorists; but so often when governments are authorised to invade privacy for such purposes, these mechanisms quickly become used for a host of other purposes. This has happened in Australia, in which the law allowed a surprising range of agencies, not just national security agencies, to have access to stored communications metadata before the legislation was tightened recently.

And if we don’t think it can happen here, remember how quickly things are changing. Take for example, Victoria’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2020, based upon unscientific beliefs, that has the potential to criminalise both prayer and the practice of psychology and psychiatry.

As Christians, we should be concerned for all freedoms, lest we too, lose the freedoms that matter to us most. That includes allowing users of technology to maintain reasonable levels of privacy and freedom from technological surveillance.

Prof. Parkinson is Chair of Freedom for Faith.