Did you know that your iPhone automatically sorts every photo you take into categorized, somewhat hidden folders like “adult cats,” “brassieres” and “shellfish (prepared)”? It’s true.
If you open your photo folder and tap the search icon at the top, you can type in just about any letter and a whole bunch of sub-folders will pop up. “E” gets you things like eats, eyeglasses and edifices. “P” pulls up performance, parade, pubs and pooches, customized exactly to whatever photos you have in your library.
This feature isn’t new, but judging from a tweet posted Monday that’s gained thousands of likes and retweets in a relatively short time, not many people knew about it — and it’s causing some anxiety.
“ATTENTION ALL GIRLS ALL GIRLS!!!” the original tweet, posted by @ellieeewbu says. “Go to your photos and type in the ‘Brassiere’ why are Apple saving these and made it a folder!!?!!? [sic]”
Presumably, this tweet is expressing a paranoia that a massive corporation like Apple can poke through your pictures using machine learning and fancy algorithms to know exactly what you’ve taken photos of, without you ever asking it to do so. And that’s true, up to a point.
Theoretically, all those folders that your iPhone has created on your behalf are stored locally on your device. Apple likes to tout this feature as something that’ll help you sort through your thousands of photos, searching for keywords rather than scrolling around endlessly. But that paranoia isn’t totally unwarranted. It’s certainly possible that third parties could use a similar algorithm for more nefarious purposes.
For example, a new feature in iOS 11 for app developers called “Core ML” allows programmers to use machine learning algorithms to learn all sorts of things about you based on what’s in your phone. For example, the app Nude uses Core ML to scan your photos for nudity, helping you pre-emptively file away any photos you wouldn’t want wandering eyes to see. (However, as Melanie Ehrenkranz wrote for Gizmodo, Nude’s algorithm is a little overeager.)
Apple has rules in place to protect developers from exploiting that data maliciously, but, as Wired noted, something sketchy could sneak through.
“Think of a photo filter or editing app that you might grant access to your albums,” Lily Hay Newman wrote for Wired. “With that access secured, an app with bad intentions could provide its stated service, while also using Core ML to ascertain what products appear in your photos, or what activities you seem to enjoy, and then go on to use that information for targeted advertising.”
Newman noted this particular case would violate Apple’s guidelines — but hey, it’s possible.
Why does Apple think I took a picture of a “badger dog”?
It’s also worth noting that the algorithm Apple uses to identify what’s in your photos is far from perfect. For example, a Mic employee shared the following screenshot of a grilled cheese, which his iPhone categorized as a cheesecake.
Another Mic employee noted that their phone had created a folder for something we hope isn’t real, called “badger dogs.”
In response to @ellieeewbu’s “ATTENTION ALL GIRLS” tweet, Twitter user @rnoomin shared a screenshot of their categories, which included the bizarrely specific category, “shellfish (prepared)” — presumably, so as not to mix up a picture of their dinner at Red Lobster with the picture they took of the lobster tank at the restaurant’s entrance.
Mic has reached out to Apple for comment and will update with any response.