Future Tense

There’s a New App for Protecting Your Nude iPhone Photos. Does It Work on Nude Paintings?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Painting by Titian.

Photo-vault apps provide a solution for storing sensitive photos on your phone, and they’ve been available for at least the past five years, as sexting has gone from scandalous to commonplace. But a new addition to the app store, Nude, is getting a lot of attention, partly because it incorporates machine learning into its functionality, promising to scan your phone’s libraries and automatically remove any photos containing nudity, whisking them behind a vault that only you can access. Progress!

But nudity predates sexting. It even predates photography. Ever been to a museum? They’re chock full of nudes. Hello, it’s called art—and hey, maybe you do want to keep that snapshot of Cézanne’s bathers with your usual selfies and other non-nude photos. So: Can the app Nude tell the difference between pictures exchanged by horny people and literal masterpieces?

I put 28 famous nude works of art on an iPhone, including the usual suspects—from Titian to Manet, some Courbet, some Goya, that Japanese print with the squid and the fisherman’s wife—from a mix of styles and eras, and then fired up the Nude app. Of those, Nude only flagged seven of them. (Plus a blurry picture of a hand and one of a part of a cat’s face. Hot stuff.)

The paintings Nude flagged.


Are Gustav Klimt’s Danaë or Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude (it’s right there in the title) any less naked than Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping or Paul Cézanne’s Seven Bathers?* Only if you’re using Nude. And more abstract nudes, like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) or Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase (again, right there in the title)? Forget about it, the Nude app thought they were perfectly safe to mingle among the rest of your pics, which is frankly disrespectful. So what if some people’s nudes are more avant-garde than others!

How are we supposed to trust this app with our precious dirty pics when it can’t properly flag all of them? That’s among other problems—the app’s founders acknowledge that its ability to detect nudity in nonwhite skin leaves something to be desired. These machine-learning limitations get at one of the weird things about Nude: Its artificial intelligence capabilities seem far from an essential feature of a vault app. Why can’t you just choose the photos on your phone manually that you want to go into the app instead of having some fancy software find them for you? It’s machine learning as marketing gimmick—it makes the app sound much more spiffy than the other, previously existing vault apps on the marketplace, even if they offer essentially the same service. Does anybody really want machine learning to get really good at IDing their or their partners’ naked bodies? No, and it doesn’t take Einstein to figure that out—or, for that matter, Picasso.

*Correction, Oct. 24, 2017: This post originally misspelled Lucian Freud’s first name.