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MISLEADING and OVERBLOWN - 'Apple Helping Police to Hide Police Brutality'


Circulating reports warn that Apple now has technology that will allow police to switch off iPhone cameras and Wi-Fi at will, thereby allowing them to avoid images and footage of police brutality from becoming public.

Brief Analysis

It is true that Apple has been granted a patent for technology that would allow remote 'enforcement of policies upon a wireless device'. The patent description also notes that the technology might have applications for covert police or government operations that require 'blackout' conditions and for other security and control applications. Certainly, such technology is potentially open to abuse by oppressive regimes and corrupt police. However, the patent description discusses many other possible applications of the technology that are not related to police operations in any way. And, despite the glaring headlines in some of the reports, the technology has not yet been implemented and Apple is not developing it specifically for police to use. Nor is there any indication of when - or if - Apple will roll out the patented technology. Like many other emerging technologies, this patent does indeed raise privacy concerns. The public have a right to accurate and balanced information about the technology and its implications. But, paranoid and overblown reports claiming that 'Apple is helping authorities to hide police brutality' and 'police can block video and photos whenever they like' are misleading and counterproductive.


Apple Helps Cops Hide Police Brutality

But Apple is coming out with a new technology that would put all the power in a cop's hands.

Misleading Reports Apple Help Cops Hide Police Brutality

Police Now Can Switch off iPhone Camera and Wi-Fi

But now the police may not need to fear scrutiny anymore, because Apple has recently patented a piece of technology that would allow the authorities and police to block data transmission, including video and photos, whenever they like.

Detailed Analysis

Various reports currently circulating via social media and the blogosphere breathlessly warn recipients via glaring headlines that 'Police Now Can Switch off iPhone Camera and Wi-Fi' and that 'Apple Helps Cops Hide Police Brutality'. The reports suggest that new technology from Apple 'would put all the power in a cop's hands' and 'would allow the authorities and police to block data transmission, including video and photos, whenever they like'. Some of the reports were published back in 2013, while others are more recent.

However, while Apple has indeed patented technology that would provide '[a]pparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device', the circulating reports about the patent are misleading and inaccurate. The new technology is not being developed specifically to allow police to block video and phone transmissions as implied in the reports. Nor has Apple already made the technology available to police as readers might conclude from report headlines.

So, what is all the fuss about? The patent description does mention that the technology could have applications for law enforcement and government security. For example, the description notes that covert 'police or government operations may require complete 'blackout' conditions'.

Another part of the document describes how a facility such as an airport could:

'..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.'

Thus, the technology could be used to increase the safety and security of citizens and potentially thwart attackers. But, conversely, it could also be used to control the flow of information at protests and public gatherings, restrict the rights of citizens, and hide government and police activities from public scrutiny.

However, as the following longer quote from the description reveals, police and security applications are only one of many possible uses for such technology and are not the patent's primary focus:

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).

Myriad other situations exist where the audible and/or visual ringing, alarm or alert functions of a wireless device are undesirable or even deleterious to the device owner or others.

Moreover, in certain situations, the communications capability that the wireless device accords to its user may be what poses the threat. For example, it is presently believed that drivers of automobiles are more likely to get into an automobile accident when they are distracted by a call on their cellular phone. Moreover, the communications functionality of wireless devices in airplanes and hospitals is presently believed to interfere with control equipment and instrumentation due to radiated electromagnetic energy, thereby jeopardizing the lives and safety of others.

Wireless devices therefore can create problems with excessive emanations of sound and light, and also by posing safety issues to others via electromagnetic radiation from their antenna. However, these are not the only problems presented by wireless devices. For example, a wireless camera hidden in an area or brought in by another individual (e.g., a cellular phone camera) where privacy is normally reasonably expected such as a department store changing room, bathroom or locker room is one example of a significant threat to such privacy. Additionally, the wireless transmission of sensitive information to a remote source is one example of a threat to security. This sensitive information could be anything from classified government information to questions or answers to an examination administered in an academic setting.

Moreover, at the time of writing, it remains unclear how far Apple has developed the technology or when - or if - it will actually be implemented. Nor is it clear exactly how such technology would be applied in practise or what organizations would have the authority to use it. ZDNet writer Zack Whittaker noted in 2012:
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.

Emerging technologies such as this do indeed raise important privacy issues. Certainly, citizens are right to be concerned about such technological capabilities, especially if they allow police or government agencies to be even less accountable than they are already.

It is important that the media reports on the privacy implications of emerging technologies, but it is equally important that such reports provide accurate and up-to-date information.

Churning out breathless, disingenuous and overblown diatribes about such issues just muddies the water and is ultimately counterproductive.

Last updated: May 16, 2014
First published: May 16, 2014
Written by Brett M. Christensen
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