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Apple Patent Allows Governments to Remotely Disable iDevice’s Camera

A recently granted Apple patent raises privacy questions: it allows police or governments to essentially "blackout" iPhones, or modify the functionality of specific apps when you enter a pre-designated "sensitive" area. It is clear that with the granting of this Apple patent, there will be a number of security issues arising in the near future.

Apple patent
US Patent No. 8,254,902 for "Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device" would allow (for example) governments to change one or more functional or operational aspects of a wireless device [...] upon the occurrence of a certain event."

A summary of the Apple patent reads as follows:

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. In this manner, various aspects of device functionality may be enabled or restricted (device "policies"). This policy enforcement capability is useful for a variety of reasons, including for example to disable noise and/or light emanating from wireless devices (such as at a movie theater), for 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.

You don't have to go further than a theater or a meeting, religious ceremony, wedding, funeral, etc. (as mentioned in the Apple patent description), where a ringing phone can cause annoyances amongst the people around you. If you consider these scenarios, the idea behind this patent doesn't look so bad.

However, the entire scope changes if you consider a political demonstration, or something of that nature. In that case, the Apple patent would mean journalists or even citizens who find themselves in a designated "sensitive area" with the intention of taking a photo or recording a video of police brutality for example, would be unable to access their iPhone's camera to capture that famed million-view YouTube seeking video, or simply to document evidence of an injustice taking place.

That's concerning.

This means that due to the conditions of this new Apple patent, police or governments could define an area as sensitive and by using your iPhone's GPS, their Wi-Fi or mobile base-stations could potentially take over your device automatically and block you from using certain apps such as the camera. While at this point it is uncertain whether enabling Airplane mode, disabling Wi-Fi, or cellular connectivity would fend off this feature-disabling policy or not, it seems as though this would be an Internet connection related issue for the following reasons.

Each iDevice user can activate the Find My iPhone/Mac option right out-of-the-box. This feature is extremely beneficial, and beloved by many, as it can track your iDevice in the case that it is lost or stolen, and furthermore, you can communicate with the thief or whomever may end up with your device. A great addition was Lock Mode and with iOS 6, Lost Mode, which allows a remote lock of the device and of course, remote wipe, which removes all data including settings from your lost or stolen iDevice. All you need for this feature is an Internet connection and you have your very own user-friendly remote control. If you cannot see the online status of your device because it has been turned off, the remote wipe or lock will be engaged as soon as the other person turns it on. That's all there is to it, you have remotely controlled your device's functionality.

The idea behind this particular Apple patent has several similarities to the above situation, but the functionality goes much deeper and when finalized, could surrender full control of your iDevice's features to the authorities. Tim Pool who has live-streamed the recent protests in Spain and those of Occupy Wall Street shares his thoughts about the implications of the Apple patent in the video below:

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