Apple granted patent to remotely disable iPhone cameras sparking fears of a Big Brother future

In short, this technology provides a means to control certain functions of the device (ie: iPhone) based on certain conditions such as entering an area defined by a wireless signal.

Apple patent 8,254,902Last week, Apple was granted patent # 8,254,902 which according to the filing is “Apparatus and methods for changing one or more functional or operational aspects of a wireless device, such as upon the occurrence of a certain event. In one embodiment, the event comprises detecting that the wireless device is within range of one or more other devices. In another variant, the event comprises the wireless device associating with a certain access point.”

Apple patent #8254902

In short, this technology provides a means to control certain functions of the device (ie: iPhone) based on certain conditions such as entering an area defined by a wireless signal. In the filing, Apple provided the following examples of such usage.

  • 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.
  • Excessive lighting emanating from wireless devices can also create disruption in dark environments. While it is well known that excessive or bright lighting in a movie theater can spoil the mood of certain movies, excessive lighting can also become a more serious issue in other contexts. For example, darkrooms used to develop film can only tolerate very low amounts of ambient lighting. Some biological labs also require low levels of lighting in certain instances (for example, as in the growth of light-sensitive bacteria). Covert police or government operations may require complete “blackout” conditions. A person’s sleep can even be interrupted by a bright flashing or modulating display (such as to indicate an incoming call).

While the intent of this technology may be innocuous, it has far-reaching implications if it is adopted widely. Although the technology to disable mobile devices already exist, this technology is, for the most part, controlled by the device owner. Adding a feature to allow granular control a mobile devices’ features based on location opens the possibility for all kinds of abuse depending on implementation. It’s too early panic but the very existence of this technology paired with recent actions by government has many questioning the wisdom of this patent.

A year ago, authorities at San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) blocked wireless signals in certain stations in an attempt to prevent a planned protest opposing the shooting death of Charles Blair Hill by BART police. The agency was widely criticized by free speech advocates accusing them of violation the first amendment.  In January of 2011, Egypt blocked Twitter and Facebook access in the midst of widespread protest against the Mubarak government. Some users were able to circumvent the block simply by using third-party services such as TweetDeck.

Based on those incidents, it’s not unreasonable to fear the worst if the technology to manipulate mobile devices become prevalent. The same technology that enables someone to turn off a phone at a theatre will also allow government to turn off the phone or disable the camera at an OCCUPY protest. In a report released today, a group of hackers claims to have stolen 12 million Apple device IDs along with corresponding user identity from a FBI agent’s laptop. If proven to be true, this confirms the fears of many that their private identity information are being shared with government without their permission.

Time will tell how this plays out but a healthy debate about the possible abuse of this technology needs to take place. What are your thoughts on this technology? Share them in the comments.