Fears for civil liberties as Apple patents technology that could remotely disable protesters’ smartphones

  • Technology  would broadcast a signal to automatically shut down smartphone features, or even  the entire phone
  • Apple  claims it would most likely be used to prevent copyright theft or to guarantee  privacy in sensitive areas
  • Civil  liberties campaigners fear it could be misused by the authorities to silence  ‘awkward citizens’

By Damien Gayle

PUBLISHED:09:35 EST, 7  November 2012| UPDATED:13:06 EST, 7 November 2012

Apple have received a patent for a technology  that could allow the police to disable protesters smartphones, it has emerged.

The new technology would act as a ‘kill  switch’ for smartphones, disabling any cameras on the devices and blocking their  connection to mobile networks.

Apple stresses that the function would be  most likely used to prevent copyright theft, such as in cinemas, or to stop  phone cameras being used in inappropriate places, like department store changing  rooms.

However, in the filing for U.S. Patent No.  8,254,902, the company adds that ‘covert police or government operations may  require complete “blackout” conditions’.

This still, taken from footage recorded on a smartphone, shows students from the University of California, Davis being pepper sprayed as they stage a sit-down protest. A new Apple patent could disable the phone cameras of protestersBrutality exposed: This still from footage recorded on a  phone, shows students from the UC Davis  being pepper sprayed as they stage a  sit-down protest. A new Apple  patent could disable the phone cameras of  protesters

‘Additionally,’ it says, ‘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.’

That statement suggests that police  and  other authorities could use the newly patented feature during  protests or  political rallies to block transmission of video footage or  photographs from  the scene.

In many highly publicised instances, such as  during the Arab Spring  revolutions and even the West’s own Occupy protests,  pictures and  footage from smartphones have proved a crucial tool for citizen  journalists documenting police behaviour.

In one highly publicised case, 21  students  from the University of California, Davis were awarded  settlements of $30,000  each after a police officer attacked them with  pepper spray as they staged a  sit-down protest.

Footage of that incident was filmed on the  smartphones of dozens of bystanders  and eventually broadcast around the world,  leading to the suspension of  two officers involved and the resignation of their  superior officer.

Civil rights campaigners warn that the new  technology could limit the ability of concerned citizens to gather evidence of  such excessive behaviour by police and security forces.

APPLE DENIES FBI LINKS

The furore  over Apple’s latest patent is not the first it has been accused of collusion  with the authorities.

The  Cupertino-based company last month faced claims by hacktivist group AntiSec that  it had passed a database of one million Apple users to the FBI.

AntiSec made the  accusation as it released the database online, after allegedly stealing the  information from an FBI agent’s laptop.

AntiSec had  claimed the data is just a piece of the more than 12 million unique  identification numbers and personal information on the device owners that it got  from a laptop used by an FBI agent.

However, the FBI  denied that it ever had that information and Apple also said it had not given  the information to the FBI.

‘The FBI has  not requested this information from Apple, nor have we provided it to the FBI or  any organization, Apple spokesperson Natalie Kerris told AllThingsD.

The patent for ‘Apparatus and methods for  enforcement of policies upon a wireless device’ was granted in late-August and  would allow authorities to change ‘one or more functional or operational aspects  of a wireless device, such as upon the occurrence of a certain  event’.

This means that those with access to the  technology could use it 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’.

The patent filing makes clear that although  Apple may implement the feature, any decision on whether to use it would be down  to governments, businesses and network operators.

The technology works via mobile  networks,  Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or GPS, and would send an encoded signal that can selectively  shut down features of smartphones within range  depending on what kind of policy  needs to be enforced.

Apple claims the technology to shut down  increasingly ubiquitous wireless  devices is necessary since they ‘can often  annoy, frustrate, and even  threaten people in sensitive venues’. However, civil  rights campaigners  have already registered their concern that authorities could  misuse the  technology.

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and  civil  liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘It’s been a  fact that modern  phones are in reality tracking devices that let us make calls, but the idea that  awkward citizens might find their phone shut  down at the behest of a Government  agency is a very worrying thought and not one that fits with democratic  principles.

‘The idea that awkward citizens might find  their  phone shut down at the behest of a Government agency is a very  worrying thought  and not one that fits with democratic principles’

Nick Pickles, Big Brother  Watch

‘Only last year we had Chinese state media  praising British politicians for considering a blackout of social media sites  and as with the iPhone, this idea could have been made in China.’

Jules Carey of Tuckers solicitors, who  represented the family of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor who died after he  was struck by a police officer at protests against the G20 in 2009, told  MailOnline the technology could stop police being held to account for their  actions.

‘There is something very sinister about  governments and the police having the power to block all communication and  recording devices except their own,’ he said. ‘This is the sort of technology  you might expect to see in China but not a western democracy.

‘Time and again it is citizen journalism,  little brother, which exposes the truth about altercations between citizens and  the state.

‘Mobile phone video recordings and  photographs played a significant role in exposing the truth concerning the death  of Ian Tomlinson and have regularly been used to expose violent or racist police  officers.

‘I struggle to think of any justification for  the use of this technology in a democratic society and in some circumstances –  such 7/7 – a phone shut down would have hampered the rescue effort and prevented  vital evidence being preserved.’

Blackout: Students protest against education cuts. The new technology would allow police and other agencies to shut off the camera functions of protesters' smartphonesBlackout: Students protest against education cuts. The  new technology would allow police and other agencies to shut off the camera  functions of protesters’ smartphones

Val Swain of the Network for Police  Monitoring, a campaign group that monitors the activities of police in public  order situations, said the technology had the potential to make policing even  less transparent.

‘Netpol and our partners use photographs and  video a great deal to monitor and record police behaviour. We would certainly be  very concerned at any attempts to limit the freedom to do this,’ she told  MailOnline.

‘Texts, tweets, photos and videos are  used a  great deal by protesters, not only to tell each other what is  going on, but  also to tell the outside world. The disruption of this  would be extremely  serious’

Val Swain, Netpol

‘Texts, tweets, photos and videos are used a  great deal by protesters, not only to tell each other what is going on, but also  to tell the outside world. The disruption of this would be extremely  serious.

‘I would also be concerned at the potential  for use of this technology by private companies, particularly those who are  targeted by protests.  Might they be tempted to ‘switch off’ protesters  phones to limit bad publicity?

‘Policing in the UK is anything but  transparent. The general public has little trust in the state authorities to  “come clean” over the use of this sort of technology.

‘This in itself makes people fearful and  anxious.  What is needed is for the police to me much more open and honest  about the way they police us generally, and particularly the way they police  public protests.’

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