Apple Patents Technology That Can Restrict Wireless Recording

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Apple has been granted a patent for technology that enables the company to remotely disable recording capabilities on smartphones and other wireless devices in certain locations.  The patent, US Patent No 8,254,902, was published on August, 28th 2012 and it reads:

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.

This language can be confusing, but it essentially means that Apple (or whoever Apple sells this technology to) can transmit an encoded signal to all wireless devices that commands them to disable certain functions, including recording functions.

With the approval of this patent, Apple can prevent users from documenting with their phones anything that the company finds sensitive.  Many critics of this newly patented technology are concerned that Apple has taken the first steps down a slippery slope.  Owners of this technological ability can set up a large zone disabling wireless devices from recording around any area at will – from movie theaters, to college campuses, to protest sites. 

While Apple has argued the patent was submitted to prevent illegal activities such as recording movies with a cell phone, the possibilities for its misuse are endless.  As every device, including cameras, becomes a wireless device, Apple holds technology that will give them the power to shut down the ability to take images in any area the company deems sensitive.

The existence of this technology is concerning to many.  The ability to decide what people can and cannot record with their wireless device sounds more than a little Big Brother-ish, and it is not difficult to imagine this technology being used to repress the free exchange of ideas and distribution of images that a company like Apple decides should be kept confidential.  Further, the right to freedom of speech only protects citizens from repression from the government, and not from companies like Apple.  There may be no legal recourse for users whose ability to record has been shut off without their consent.

This small patent will certainly give conspiracy theorists something to rant and rave about, but it is something we should all keep on our radar.  As we shift into a world of wireless devices, technology designed to control them can become a critical focus for companies, users, and even governments.


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