Announced at WWDC 2023, Communication Safety is targeted at protecting kids from exploitation, and will now be enabled by default for users under the age of 13. The tool looks for images containing nudity on the device, with any suspected images getting blurred by default.
Tapping the image to reveal it will first pop up a warning indicating that this could be an inappropriate image, and that the user may wish to abort opening the image, or look at the Ways to Get Help option in case they're being deliberately targeted. Choosing to open the image will warn any connected parent accounts.
This feature already worked with iMessage, but now it will be able to detect images in video, such as when using FaceTime, as well as other apps like Contacts and AirDrop. Apple's also introduced a developer API so that third-party apps could also make use of the system.
Another new addition Sensitive Content Warning is a similar system designed as an optional feature for adult users. The same scanning system will offer a less obstructive warning about potential explicit content if enabled in Settings.
A controversial feature
Apple introduced the Communication Safety feature back in 2021, but its implementation was delayed following user objections to the system scanning both a user's phone and their iCloud files (although iCloud files would apparently be scanned prior to upload, not while in the cloud). Plus the oddly specific threshold of 30 offending images that users would have to reach before Apple would manually investigate an account.
Nonetheless, the system arrived with iOS 15.2, although it could only scan on-device files. While nobody can fault Apple's effort to protect vulnerable users from abuse, the precedent set for examining the contents of a user's iPhone without specific permission has worried privacy advocates.
Fortunately, iOS 17 and WWDC 2023 came with many other announcements which should spark fewer debates. The best iOS 17 features overall include new smart display and journaling abilities along with other small upgrades to existing apps, plus there are more security and privacy updates coming such as automatic locking and enhanced anti-tracking for Safari private browser tabs and a more granular Photos picking tool.