Does Apple Want to Control Your iPhone Camera?

June 30th, 2011

A curious story crossed the wires the other day that has already created a furore from freedom of information advocates. It seems that Apple is developing what appears to be an iPhone kill switch feature, and it’s clear the implications are troubling.

The report is based on an Apple patent application filed 18 months ago. The software described would evidently interact with a nearby infrared sensor to shut down the camera when the unit is brought within range. Supposedly it’s designed, for example, to keep concertgoers from recording and selling videos of live concerts, which is usually prohibited. But it’s just as easy for the authorities to harness such a feature to prevent you from shooting pictures of police officers engaged in an embarrassing act, such as abusing a suspect, by having the infrared sensor embedded in patrol cars.

Clearly organizations dedicated to free speech, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Free Press, are up in arms over the threat of a possible kill switch. I suppose they have a point, although it’s also true that concert promoters want to protect the acts they spend loads of money to bring into their stadiums and arenas. Even though they will usually warn the audience at the start of an event that taking pictures and movies isn’t allowed, people will do it anyway. Sure, management has a right to eject the offenders, but if the movie taking is done surreptitiously, it is apt to present a problem for an act and/or an entertainment company that wants and deserves the right to distribute such performances, and monetize them naturally, as they see fit.

As they said in that super hero movie some years back, with great power comes great responsibility. Should such a kill switch appear on a future iPhone or iPad, or even the Web cam on a Mac, wouldn’t its presence create ample opportunity for abuse?

There are potential legitimate concerns there. But there are also legitimate reasons for having such a tool, aside from protecting entertainment figures. Consider a company that hands out iPhones to employees for use strictly for company business. They already have stringent controls over such devices, meaning they can install proprietary in-house software, and they can engage the remote wipe function if the device is lost or stolen, or the employee is fired from the company and doesn’t return the device.

It also would make sense that a company might want to prevent employees from shooting pictures of proprietary products, services, or even an entire test laboratory. They have a perfect right to protect their trade secrets, and if they own the iPhones, they can configure them any way they want. The issue of freedom of information doesn’t apply.

Where the concerns arise is when the “privilege” or whatever you wish to call it, is abused by governments to prevent citizens from exercising their rights to take pictures in their homes and public places. Certainly those widely published photos of abusive acts around the world have caused rebellions that ultimately sank corrupt governments.

This is the sort of genie that you would possibly want to keep sealed in the bottle, right?

At the same time, it’s fair to say that there is no kill switch on your Apple iOS gadget now, nor is there actually any evidence there ever will be. This whole brouhaha is based on a patent filing and nothing more. Apple’s engineers create a technology, and they want to make sure the rights to that invention are protected. In the filing, they will even suggest conditions where the invention might be used, but that doesn’t mean the product will ever see the light of day.

I mean, where is the touchscreen iMac? Have you seen it? Please tell me where I can watch it demonstrated? The fact of the matter is that, despite the existence of a patent filing that describes such a technology, no such product has ever left Apple’s test labs, assuming one’s even there. Considering Apple’s attitude about touchscreens, which limits them to iOS gadgets and input devices, it’s likely such a product will never be released. But some of the technologies may find their ways into gear where it makes sense.

At the same time, I get it. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the possible threat of a camera kill switch. To release such a feature in the core iOS would be a serious mistake. At the same time, offering a such a function that a corporate IP person can activate might be understandable. Sure, if the feature can be activated, someone will heavy-duty computer programming skills might find a way to have it deactivated. At the same time, if the company discovered evidence of such tampering, and I suppose some sort of appropriate logging system could also be built into the software, the offender could find themselves seeking a new job.

I also think that Apple wants to do the right thing, and, if such a feature ever appears, it would be delivered with serious restrictions that wouldn’t infringe on the rights of individual users. At least I hope so. But as I said, the existence of a patent does not mean the invention will be used in a shipping product now — or ever.

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2 Responses to “Does Apple Want to Control Your iPhone Camera?”

  1. John B says:

    In some states it is currently illegal to photograph on-duty police officers. Hard to believe it is against the law to photograph a public servant performing their public duty in public. Yet it is. So the idea of police cars having the technology to disable nearby cameras is not at all far fetched. I’d be more surprised if this DOESN’T happen in the not-to-distant future.

    • @John B, Yes, but that’s a fight you have to have with your local government, not with Apple. If Apple doesn’t produce the technology, someone will. I don’t see it as anything that can’t be done by any qualified tech development team. Besides, Apple will obey the laws in your state, regardless of how silly they might be.


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