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New Group Attacking iPhone Encryption Backed by U.S. Political Dark-Money Network

The Heat Initiative, a nonprofit child safety advocacy group, was formed earlier this year to campaign against some of the strong privacy protections Apple provides customers. The group says these protections help enable child exploitation, …

The Heat Initiative, a nonprofit child safety advocacy group, was formed earlier this year to campaign against some of the strong privacy protections Apple provides customers. The group says these protections help enable child exploitation, objecting to the fact that pedophiles can encrypt their personal data just like everyone else.

When Apple launched its new iPhone this September, the Heat Initiative seized on the occasion, taking out a full-page New York Times ad, using digital billboard trucks, and even hiring a plane to fly over Apple headquarters with a banner message. The message on the banner appeared simple: “Dear Apple, Detect Child Sexual Abuse in iCloud” — Apple’s cloud storage system, which today employs a range of powerful encryption technologies aimed at preventing hackers, spies, and Tim Cook from knowing anything about your private files.

Something the Heat Initiative has not placed on giant airborne banners is who’s behind it: a controversial billionaire philanthropy network whose influence and tactics have drawn unfavorable comparisons to the right-wing Koch network. Though it does not publicize this fact, the Heat Initiative is a project of the Hopewell Fund, an organization that helps privately and often secretly direct the largesse — and political will — of billionaires. Hopewell is part of a giant, tightly connected web of largely anonymous, Democratic Party-aligned dark-money groups, in an ironic turn, campaigning to undermine the privacy of ordinary people.

“None of these groups are particularly open with me or other people who are tracking dark money about what it is they’re doing.”

For experts on transparency about money in politics, the Hopewell Fund’s place in the wider network of Democratic dark money raises questions that groups in the network are disinclined to answer.

“None of these groups are particularly open with me or other people who are tracking dark money about what it is they’re doing,” said Robert Maguire, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. Maguire said the way the network operated called to mind perhaps the most famous right-wing philanthropy and dark-money political network: the constellation of groups run and supported by the billionaire owners of Koch Industries. Of the Hopewell network, Maguire said, “They also take on some of the structural calling cards of the Koch network; it is a convoluted group, sometimes even intentionally so.”

The decadeslong political and technological campaign to diminish encryption for the sake of public safety — known as the “Crypto Wars” — has in recent years pivoted from stoking fears of terrorists chatting in secret to child predators evading police scrutiny. No matter the subject area, the battle is being waged between those who think privacy is an absolute right and those who believe it ought to be limited for expanded oversight from law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The ideological lines pit privacy advocates, computer scientists, and cryptographers against the FBI, the U.S. Congress, the European Union, and other governmental bodies around the world. Apple’s complex 2021 proposal to scan cloud-bound images before they ever left your phone became divisive even within the field of cryptography itself.

While the motives on both sides tend to be clear — there’s little mystery as to why the FBI doesn’t like encryption — the Heat Initiative, as opaque as it is new, introduces the obscured interests of billionaires to a dispute over the rights of ordinary individuals. 

“I’m uncomfortable with anonymous rich people with unknown agendas pushing these massive invasions of our privacy,” Matthew Green, a cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University and a critic of the plan to have Apple scan private files on its devices, told The Intercept. “There are huge implications for national security as well as consumer privacy against corporations. Plenty of unsavory reasons for people to push this technology that have nothing to do with protecting children.”

Apple’s Aborted Scanning Scheme

Last month, Wired reported the previously unknown Heat Initiative was pressing Apple to reconsider its highly controversial 2021 proposal to have iPhones constantly scan their owners’ photos as they were uploaded to iCloud, checking to see if they were in possession of child sexual abuse material, known as CSAM. If a scan turned up CSAM, police would be alerted. While most large internet companies check files their users upload and share against a centralized database of known CSAM, Apple’s plan went a step further, proposing to check for illegal files not just on the company’s servers, but directly on its customers’ phones.

“In the hierarchy of human privacy, your private files and photos should be your most important confidential possessions,” Green said. “We even wrote this into the U.S. Constitution.”

The backlash was swift and effective. Computer scientists, cryptographers, digital rights advocates, and civil libertarians immediately protested, claiming the scanning would create a deeply dangerous precedent. The ability to scan users’ devices could open up iPhones around the world to snooping by authoritarian governments, hackers, corporations, and security agencies. A year later, Apple reversed course and said it was shelving the idea.

Green said that efforts to push Apple to monitor the private files of iPhone owners are part of a broader effort against encryption, whether used to safeguard your photographs or speak privately with others — rights that were taken for granted before the digital revolution. “We have to have some principles about what we’ll give up to fight even heinous crime,” he said. “And these proposals give up everything.”

“We have to have some principles about what we’ll give up to fight even heinous crime. And these proposals give up everything.”

In an unusual move justifying its position, Apple provided Wired with a copy of the letter it sent to the Heat Initiative in reply to its demands. “Scanning every user’s privately stored iCloud data would create new threat vectors for data thieves to find and exploit,” the letter read. “It would also inject the potential for a slippery slope of unintended consequences. Scanning for one type of content, for instance, opens the door for bulk surveillance and could create a desire to search other encrypted messaging systems across content types.”

The strong encryption built into iPhones, which shields sensitive data like your photos and iMessage conversations even from Apple itself, is frequently criticized by police agencies and national security hawks as providing shelter to dangerous criminals. In a 2014 speech, then-FBI Director James Comey singled out Apple’s encryption specifically, warning that “encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place.”

Some cryptographers respond that it’s impossible to filter possible criminal use of encryption without defeating the whole point of encryption in the first place: keeping out prying eyes.

Similarly, any attempt to craft special access for police to use to view encrypted conversations when they claim they need to — a “backdoor” mechanism for law enforcement access — would be impossible to safeguard against abuse, a stance Apple now says it shares.

LOS ANGELES CA - SEPTEMBER 01, 2023: Apple is facing pressure from child safety advocates and shareholders to improve its policies for policing child sexual abuse material in iCloud. Photographed here is Sarah Gardner, head of the Heat Initiative, who is leading the campaign. CREDIT: Jessica Pons for The New York Times

Sarah Gardner, head of the Heat Initiative, on Sept. 1, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Jessica Pons for the New York Times

Dark-Money Network

For an organization demanding that Apple scour the private information of its customers, the Heat Initiative discloses extremely little about itself. According to a report in the New York Times, the Heat Initiative is armed with $2 million from donors including the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, an organization founded by British billionaire hedge fund manager and Google activist investor Chris Cohn, and the Oak Foundation, also founded by a British billionaire. The Oak Foundation previously provided $250,000 to a group attempting to weaken end-to-end encryption protections in EU legislation, according to a 2020 annual report.

The Heat Initiative is helmed by Sarah Gardner, who joined from Thorn, an anti-child trafficking organization founded by actor Ashton Kutcher. (Earlier this month, Kutcher stepped down from Thorn following reports that he’d asked a California court for leniency in the sentencing of convicted rapist Danny Masterson.) Thorn has drawn scrutiny for its partnership with Palantir and efforts to provide police with advanced facial recognition software and other sophisticated surveillance tools. Critics say these technologies aren’t just uncovering trafficked children, but ensnaring adults engaging in consensual sex work.

In an interview, Gardner declined to name the Heat Initiative’s funders, but she said the group hadn’t received any money from governmental or law enforcement organizations. “My goal is for child sexual abuse images to not be freely shared on the internet, and I’m here to advocate for the children who cannot make the case for themselves,” Gardner added.

She said she disagreed with “privacy absolutists” — a group now apparently including Apple — who say CSAM-scanning iPhones would have imperiled user safety. “I think data privacy is vital,” she said. “I think there’s a conflation between user privacy and known illegal content.”

Heat Initiative spokesperson Kevin Liao told The Intercept that, while the group does want Apple to re-implement its 2021 plan, it would be open to other approaches to screening everyone’s iCloud storage for CSAM. Since Apple began allowing iCloud users to protect their photos with end-to-end encryption last December, however, this objective is far trickier now than it was back in 2021; to scan iCloud images today would still require the mass-scrutinizing of personal data in some manner. As Apple put it in its response letter, “Scanning every user’s privately stored iCloud content would in our estimation pose serious unintended consequences for our users.”

Both the Oak Foundation and Thorn were cited in a recent report revealing the extent to which law enforcement and private corporate interests have influenced European efforts to weaken encryption in the name of child safety.

Beyond those groups and a handful of names, however, there is vanishingly little information available about what the Heat Initiative is, where it came from, or who exactly is paying its bills and why. Its website, which describes the group only as a “collective effort of concerned child safety experts and advocates” — who go unnamed — contains no information about funding, staff, or leadership.

One crucial detail, however, can be found buried in the “terms of use” section of the Heat Initiative’s website: “THIS WEBSITE IS OWNED AND OPERATED BY Hopewell Fund AND ITS AFFILIATES.” Other than a similarly brief citation in the site’s privacy policy, there is no other mention of the Hopewell Fund or explanation of its role. The omission is significant, given Hopewell’s widely reported role as part of a shadowy cluster of Democratic dark-money groups that funnel billions from anonymous sources into American politics.

Hopewell is part of a labyrinthine billionaire-backed network that receives and distributes philanthropic cash while largely obscuring its origin. The groups in this network include New Venture Fund (which has previously paid salaries at Hopewell), the Sixteen Thirty Fund, and Arabella Advisors, a for-profit company that helps administer these and other Democratic-leaning nonprofits and philanthropies. The groups have poured money into a wide variety of causes ranging from abortion access to opposing Republican tax policy, along the way spending big on elections — about $1.2 billion total in 2020 alone, according to a New York Times investigation.

The deep pockets of this network and mystery surrounding the ultimate source of its donations have drawn comparisons — by Maguire, the Times, and others — to the Koch brothers’ network, whose influence over electoral politics from the right long outraged Democrats. When asked by The Atlantic in 2021 whether she felt good “that you’re the left’s equivalent of the Koch brothers,” Sampriti Ganguli, at the time the CEO of Arabella Advisors, replied in the affirmative.

“Sixteen Thirty Fund is the largest network of liberal politically active nonprofits in the country. We’re talking here about hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Sixteen Thirty Fund is the largest network of liberal politically active nonprofits in the country,” Maguire of CREW told The Intercept. “We’re talking here about hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Liao told The Intercept that Hopewell serves as the organization’s “fiscal sponsor,” an arrangement that allows tax-deductible donations to pass through a registered nonprofit on its way to an organization without tax-exempt status. Liao declined to provide a list of the Heat Initiative’s funders beyond the two mentioned by the New York Times. Owing to this fiscal sponsorship, Liao continued, “the Hopewell Fund’s board is Heat Initiative’s board.” Hopewell’s board includes New Venture Fund President Lee Bodner and Michael Slaby, a veteran of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and former chief technology strategist at an investment fund operated by ex-Google chair Eric Schmidt.

When asked who exactly was leading the Heat Initiative, Liao told The Intercept that “it’s just the CEO Sarah Gardner.” According to LinkedIn, however, Lily Rhodes, also previously with Thorn, now works as Heat Initiative’s director of strategic operations. Liao later said Rhodes and Gardner are the Heat Initiative’s only two employees. When asked to name the “concerned child safety experts and advocates” referred to on the Heat Initiative’s website, Liao declined.

“When you take on a big corporation like Apple,” he said, “you probably don’t want your name out front.”

Hopewell’s Hopes

Given the stakes — nothing less than the question of whether people have an absolute right to communicate in private — the murkiness surrounding a monied pressure campaign against Apple is likely to concern privacy advocates. The Heat Initiative’s efforts also give heart to those aligned with law enforcement interests. Following the campaign’s debut, former Georgia Bureau of Investigations Special Agent in Charge Debbie Garner, who has also previously worked for iPhone-hacking tech firm Grayshift, hailed the Heat Initiative’s launch in a LinkedIn group for Homeland Security alumni, encouraging them to learn more.

The larger Hopewell network’s efforts to influence political discourse have attracted criticism and controversy in the past. In 2021, OpenSecrets, a group that tracks money in politics, reported that New Venture Fund and the Sixteen Thirty Fund were behind a nationwide Facebook ad campaign pushing political messaging from Courier News, a network of websites designed to look like legitimate, independent political news outlets.

Despite its work with ostensibly progressive causes, Hopewell has taken on conservative campaigns: In 2017, Deadspin reported with bemusement an NFL proposal in which the league would donate money into a pool administered by the Hopewell Fund as part of an incentive to get players to stop protesting the national anthem.

Past campaigns connected to Hopewell and its close affiliates have been suffused with Big Tech money. Hopewell is also the fiscal sponsor of the Economic Security Project, an organization that promotes universal basic income founded by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. In 2016, SiliconBeat reported that New Venture Fund, which is bankrolled in part by major donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was behind the Google Transparency Project, an organization that publishes unflattering research relating to Google. Arabella has also helped Microsoft channel money to its causes of choice, the report noted. Billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar has also provided large cash gifts to both Hopewell and New Venture Fund, according to the New York Times (Omidyar is a major funder of The Intercept).

According to Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at Stanford University’s Internet Observatory program, the existence of the Heat Initiative is ultimately the result of an “unforced error” by Apple in 2021, when it announced it was exploring using CSAM scanning for its cloud service.

“And now they’re seeing that they can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Pfefferkorn said. “Whatever measures they take to combat the cloud storage of CSAM, child safety orgs — and repressive governments — will remember that they’d built a tool that snoops on the user at the device level, and they’ll never be satisfied with anything less.”

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This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by Sam Biddle.

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