Apple patent could remotely disable protesters' phone cameras

Summary:A new patent, granted to Apple, could prevent academic cheating, cinema interruptions, but also see areas of political protest activity 'ring-fenced' disabling phone and tablet cameras.

Don't you just hate it when there's someone in the cinema taking photos, or talking on their phone? How unfair is it that 'they' cheated on their test because they could access the Web, and yet you only got half their marks?

Isn't it a shame you can't take a photo of the police officer beating a man in the street because your oppressive government remotely disabled your smartphone camera?

A new patent granted to Apple could do all of the above.

U.S. Patent No. 8,254,902, otherwise known as "Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device," was granted in late-August, and would allow phone policies to be set to "chang[e] one or more functional or operational aspects of a wireless device [...] upon the occurrence of a certain event."

What that means in real-terms is "preventing wireless devices from communicating with other wireless devices (such as in academic settings)," and for, "forcing certain electronic devices to enter "sleep mode" when entering a sensitive area."

But the patented technology may also be used to restrict protesters' right to free expression in oppressive regimes around the world -- if you haven't checked recently, there's plenty of them -- by preventing camera images and video being taken at political rallies and events.

Apple makes a good point for the voice of good:

As wireless devices such as cellular telephones, pagers, personal media devices and smartphones become ubiquitous, more and more people are carrying these devices in various social and professional settings. The result is that these wireless devices can often annoy, frustrate, and even threaten people in sensitive venues. For example, cell phones with loud ringers frequently disrupt meetings, the presentation of movies, religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, academic lectures, and test-taking environments. 

But it notes later on:

Covert police or government operations may require complete "blackout" conditions. 

Adding:

Likewise, an airline operator or airport may cause the mobile device to enter into an "airplane" mode, wherein all electromagnetic emissions of significance are prevented, at least during flight, thereby more affirmatively preventing interference with aircraft communications or instrumentation and enhancing safety. Similarly, if a terrorist threat or other security breach is detected, the airport may disable at least a portion of the wireless communications within a terminal using a policy command, thereby potentially frustrating communications between individual terrorists or other criminals. 

It's clear that although Apple may implement the technology, it would not be Apple's decision to activate the 'feature,' such as a remote-switch -- it would be down governments, businesses and network owners to set such policies.

Those policies would be activated by GPS, and Wi-Fi or mobile base-stations, which would ring-fence ("geofence") around a building, a protest, or a sensitive area to prevent phone cameras from taking pictures or recording video.

Other features, such as email or connecting to non-authorized networks -- such as working in the office and connecting to a non-work network on a company-owned device -- could be set, for example. 

This sort of 'feature' would not bode well for journalists taking photos and citizens recording acts of state violence or police brutality in areas where ordinary people are facing increasing crackdowns on civil and human rights.

One unknown variable to this is what if you disable all connectivity, such as the cell network, Wi-Fi, and GPS? If there was no connection to a network to set such feature-disabling policies in the first place, it could be possible to circumvent such restrictions.

Questions have been left with Apple, but there was no reply at the time of writing outside U.S. business hours.

It goes almost without saying, just because a patent has been granted doesn't mean Apple will use the technology any time soon.

Companies often patent technologies and features that do not go into end products, so it's not a looking-glass view into what's coming in the next iPhone or iPad at an upcoming September announcement, or even further down the line. It does though offer a view into what companies are working on and have the potential to dish out to end-consumers and business customers.

Topics: Apple, Patents, Privacy, Security, Smartphones

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.