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iPhone sorts your semi-nude photos in 'brassiere' folder

Users dress down Apple for training its machine learning algorithms on their intimate photos. The phone doesn't sort the photos until you ask it to.

A close-up of an iPhone camera lens. iPhone users found they could find their semi-nude photos by searching the term "brassiere."

iPhone users found they could find their semi-nude photos by searching the term "brassiere."

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Some iPhone users are feeling exposed by a feature in their phones' Photos app. 

When they type in the word "brassiere" in the photo search function, iPhone users find pictures their phone thinks include bras. As it happens, those photos tend to be a little intimate. Word began spreading on Twitter on Monday about this feature, and iPhone users began tweeting that they found the photo folder surprising. 

The mere existence of a brassiere folder felt unsettling for some, even though Apple has told users its machine learning algorithm can search and categorize your photos. In an era of changing norms around privacy and the internet, it's times like this when people begin to question whether our devices know us too well, and whether this is really the kind of world we want to live in.

Even model Chrissy Teigen chimed on what she found when she searched her iPhone for bra photos:

So what's happening here? Is Apple creeping through your photos and secretly categorizing them based on whether they include your underwear? Well, yes and no.

First of all, Apple does allow you to search your photos with a vast array of search terms, and it uses machine learning to automatically detect images that match. Type in "cat" and you're likely to find a bunch of cat photos (if you're me, at least). Brassiere is one of those search terms.

This photo sorting happens on your phone only. Even if you sync the photos on your iPhone with your iCloud account, Apple only runs its machine learning algorithms locally on your phone. That means there isn't a folder of your bra photos sitting on Apple's servers somewhere.

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The sorting also only happens when you enter the search term. So until you enter the term "brassiere" in the search bar, no such folder exists. 

Google Photos also lets you search your photos with the term "brassiere." Google didn't provide a comment on how whether it runs this analysis on its servers and whether it sorts the photos automatically or waits for you to enter in a specific search term.

Apple pre-selected the term "brassiere" to be available on the Photos app. The company didn't clarify why the term "brassiere" -- which, let's be honest, many of us just learned to spell correctly today -- is one of the available search terms. Words like "underwear," "briefs" or other intimate apparel aren't among the pre-designated terms.

First published Oct. 31, 11:29 a.m. PT.
Update, 3:32 p.m.: Adds background on Google Photos.

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