Yesterday, a viral tweet raised alarm about an iPhone feature that isn't often talked about: photo categorisation. Twitter user @ellieeewbu pointed out that when she searched for "brassiere" in her Photos, a folder popped up showing all her photos corresponding to that keyword. Today, Chrissy Teigen also posted a screenshot of her own "brassiere" folder, full of boobs and bras.
If you've ever taken a selfie where your cleavage is visible, you too probably have this folder. As creepy as it initially sounds, Apple is not, as one headline suggested, "obsessed with women's lingerie." In fact, the technology that creates that "brassiere" folder is actually very useful.
Even though the function is just getting noticed now, the technology behind it has been around since iOS 10. With that operating system, Apple introduced a new photos app with computer vision technology. In addition to recognising people, it also recognises objects. If you have hundreds of photos on your iPhone from any number of years, like I do, people and object recognition is an incredibly easy way to find the image you're searching for — and even some you might have forgotten about — without scrolling through your entire photo library.
Open the Photos app and tap the magnifying glass along the top of the screen. You can type any letter to see the many categories it produces, based on the photos in your library. For example, when I type "a" I get categories including "art," "armchair," "automobile," and "amusement park." "B" brings up "baby," "bar," and "boat" as well as specific times such as "break of day." (Google Photos also allows you to search for people, places and things and works the same way: Simply start typing in the search bar to see keywords pop up.)
Computer vision isn't perfect and it doesn't always categorise photos correctly. In my "boat" folder, I have photos taken against a white backdrop outside a brunch place — not on a boat. However, it's pretty close and it's an efficient way to find an image, especially if you don't quite remember when it was taken.
Just because machine learning on your iPhone sorts your "brassiere" photos and others into their own folders, this doesn't mean Apple has access to those images. According to Apple's support page, "all of the face recognition and scene and object detection are done completely on your device." The Verge, however, points out one concerning element of this categorisation: There are no male equivalents; no "boxers" or "briefs" folders as counterparts to "brassiere."
I'd encourage you to take a look at the categories your photos are sorted into — you might be surprised by what you find.
Refinery29 has reached out to Apple for comment.