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Apple's infrared 'camera kill switch' patent application hits a nerve

Picture this: You're out for a stroll on the streets of Vancouver when suddenly you find yourself caught up in a depressed mob of hockey fans. Riot police are striking a young man with their batons near a squad car. You pull out your iPhone to capture a video of this seeming abuse of force -- only to see a flashing message on the screen that says 'Recording Disabled.'

Earlier this month, Patently Apple analyzed a patent application filing that Apple originally submitted in December of 2009. The patent application covered several ways to communicate with a cellphone through its camera using a coded infrared light transmission.

Simply pointing your phone's camera at a properly equipped museum exhibit, for example, could load a webpage about the artifact on display or offer additional details about its origins. An auction house or fashion show could easily provide pricing, availability or 'click to bid' buttons. The technology would work like a giant, invisible QR code -- although it couldn't do the bidirectional sharing that Google's demo showed earlier. You also couldn't block it with a bit of masking tape, since the infrared data stream is captured by the phone's camera itself, not by a separate sensor.

That's the user-affirming side of the patent. The other big use case, however, is for the infrared transmission to tell the phone "Hey, no pictures here!" The suggested applications are for concert halls, movie theaters or even sensitive corporate/government facilities -- giving those venue owners an easy way to block photography or videotaping of copyrighted or classified materials. Whether you think that's a terrible idea or an awesome idea may rest on whether or not you own a concert hall or a movie theater.

Of course, Apple patents or patent applications often don't evolve into actual, shipping Apple products. (Remember the 'undead ads for content time' patent? Ick.) Nevertheless, even in the hypothetical case, the spectre of a 'kill switch' for the iPhone camera is not sitting all that well in certain circles.

The Save the Internet coalition has published a suggested open letter to Steve Jobs that suggests this patent application is deeply repugnant to the ideals of freedom: "[T]housands of people across the Middle East have used cellphone cameras to document violent government abuses. This technology would also give tyrants the power to stem the flow of protest videos and crack down on their citizens with impunity." The petition continues, "If this tool fell into the hands of repressive regimes or malicious corporations, it would give tyrants and companies the power to silence one of the most critical forms of free expression."

Now, there's a wide gulf between blocking cameras at concerts and quashing dissent by democratic activists -- at least in theory. First of all, would-be repressive regimes would have to set up expensive equipment in advance, which would work only at short range -- and even if they did that there'd be no guarantee that all the phones in the area would comply with the invisible orders, so the requisite shakedown of all camera-enabled devices by armed enforcers would still have to be done. In the chaos and commotion of the kind of situations that would tend to motivate large-scale iPhone videography, it's by no means clear that this 'kill switch' would even work. As my colleague Chris Rawson points out, your average infrared TV remote control is thoroughly flummoxed by simple sunlight.

None of this, however, means that it's prudent to stand atop the slippery slope of external device controls and say "Looks like a nice ride down." It's easy to think, as I did when first reading the admittedly hyperbolic language of the petition, "Look, the iPhone is not the only camera in the world; professional bootleg videographers don't use crappy cameraphones at all, protesters have many different kinds of phones and cameras at their disposal, and as soon as this capability gets rolled out people will simply jump to another platform to work around it." [Never mind the fact that Flickr now shows the iPhone 4 as the most popular camera on the site, bar none. –Ed.]

The problem is that market reaction takes time, and in the thought experiment I played out at the beginning of this post there's no time to react. If you were in a traffic stop that went wrong, a political rally with a bad outcome, a movie theater where someone was being assaulted -- there's no chance to go back in time and say "You know, that iPhone camera kill switch may not have been such a good idea after all."

It's impossible to say, without access to Apple's labs, whether this technology is truly viable, whether it would work in daylight, and whether it could really be used in the situations envisioned by the petition writers. It's equally impossible to say whether Apple intends to implement and commercialize this invention, or even if the company's patent application would be granted. Maybe Apple's secret objective in pursuing this patent is not to implement it in products -- to keep the concept off the market in perpetuity, or at least for the life of the patent. But that doesn't seem likely, and in the absence of comment from Apple about whether and how the capability would be implemented in future iPhones (a comment that is undoubtedly not coming anytime soon), all we have is our questions.



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Apple iPhone

Even in the hypothetical case, the spectre of a 'kill switch' for the iPhone camera is not sitting all that well in certain circles.