Last month, headlines buzzed with Apple’s new patent for an infrared signal that would instantly disable the cameras on all equipped cellphones in the vicinity, preventing anyone from photographing or video recording in the direction of the signal. In the patent filing, Apple uses the example of a music concert in which the venue or band prohibits recording of their shows, but attendees nonetheless live-stream the concert to the world for free or take copious photographs of video clips and share them on social media. Using Apple’s device, venues could simply forcibly disable all phone cameras in the venue, rendering the issue moot. On the surface, this sounds like a fantastic idea, but what about the unintended consequences?
Once it becomes possible to remotely deactivate all cell phone cameras in an area, it is not a stretch to imagine governments and police forces leveraging the technology. Today, social movements like Black Lives Matter use social media to broadcast police interactions and live-stream their protests. If Apple’s technology becomes mainstream, one could imagine police forces equipping every officer and squad car with the device set to block all citizen recording of police activity. One could imagine repressive governments pre-positioning the devices to blanket every public square and major roadway across the nation and activating the network during times of public unrest to instantly silence the iconic citizen imagery that has come to define modern uprisings. The Guardian notes that smartphone use is actually prohibited in the U.S. House and Senate chambers, meaning such technology might be deployed in future to prevent members from live- streaming protests as happened last month when Democrats staged a sit-in and House Speaker Paul Ryan ordered the House’s broadcast cameras turned off, with the protesters simply live-streaming their sit-in over social media instead.
Moreover, one can imagine the concept being taken further, with future jammers able to selectively disable any feature on the phone or turn them off entirely. Fine dining establishments would likely jump at the ability to install a device that would mute every phone in the restaurant, forcing patrons to step outside to take a call, or blocking all phone use other than calls to 911. Similarly, in major counterterrorism or police actions, police now routinely ask citizens and the media not to live broadcast or discuss what they see in certain areas in order not to tip off criminals or terrorists to where police are going. In extraordinary cases, even the U.S. government has been known to deploy mobile jamming equipment to block phone use in special exclusion zones, but such devices are highly controversial as they also block calls to 911. A portable device that signals all phones in an area to turn off except for 911 calls would likely be a go-to device for many security services.
Taking this a step further, one could imagine future variants that selectively disable the use of data services in the area or block access to social media services in the area. Blocking social media sites at the national ISP level during periods of unrest has become a common tactic in many countries, but requires extensive coordination with Internet companies, national infrastructure providers and broad legal authorities and coercion. In contrast, if the government just has to point a transmitter at a public square to instantly cut off all social media use or all mobile data use in the area, it is hard to envision that technology not becoming widely deployed.
One could also imagine the opposite – signals that trigger all phones in the area to transmit their GPS coordinates or turn on their microphones and cameras to listen for gunshots or a particular person’s voice a.k.a. Batman’s The Dark Knight. The Snowden disclosures have broadened awareness of what skilled adversaries like the NSA can do when they target an individual phone, but one can easily see governments requesting those features be baked into consumer devices in manufacturing to make it far easier to use them at scale as a routine matter.
Much like the encryption debate, even if Apple and other major manufacturers blocked encryption on their devices or implemented such “remote kill” features, it is likely that other companies would step forward with replacement devices that did not have the kill feature or which did offer end-to-end encryption, but the general public would likely still flock to the more mainstream devices they were familiar with.
What makes this patent perhaps most intriguing is Apple’s staunch public stance against any attempts of outside intrusion against its users, most famously in its legal battle with the U.S. government to oppose weakening of encryption standards. Yet, the same company has patented a system that would allow anyone to instantly disable the cameras on every iPhone in the vicinity, placing remote control over its customers’ devices into someone else’s hands.
It is unclear whether this is merely a defensive patent or whether Apple is actively planning to deploy it in their devices and the company did not respond to a request for comment on what steps it was planning to take to ensure it could not be used to block legal activities like the legal recording of police activity. Apple also did not respond to a request for comment on whether a high-powered version of the device could be mounted to a drone and used as a rapidly deployable portal jamming device over protests or major police actions.
While it remains to be seen whether Apple’s patent ultimately comes to fruition, it offers a frighteningly 1984 view of the future of digital society in which all of the devices and technologies we’ve come to embrace and believe are “ours” can now be taken away from us with the click of a button. This is especially relevant as more and more of our information, from books to movies to songs to news articles are digitally delivered via the ephemeral cloud. In the past even if the government banned a particular book or burned all copies of a newspaper that published an unflattering article, copies still existed in myriad personal bookshelves. Today, all those copies sit in centralized cloud repositories and can be removed with a click, disappearing forever from access or existence. As standalone cameras have been replaced with Internet-connected all-in-one smartphones, suddenly even our ability to capture and talk to the world has become part of the all-encompassing cloud and placed the control over our devices in the hands of others.
Whether this proves to be just a bit of unfounded hysteria or the dark glimmers of the dystopia to come, the great lengths governments have gone to censor communications in the digital era do not bode well for the likelihood that this technology will not come to pass. Could it be that all this time we’ve been bankrolling the world’s greatest surveillance network and getting rid of anything not connected to the network, creating a world in which the government or even private companies or individuals can simply disable our connection to the digital world and our ability to record and communicate with a mouse click?
Whatever the future to come, Apple’s new patent should serve as a wakeup call and reminder to the world’s citizens that the devices we fill our lives with today don’t actually belong to us and can ultimately be made to serve others against our interests.
This article was written by Kalev Leetaru from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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