Apple Patent Blocks Smartphone Recording, and it’s Creepy


Musicians and other live performers could have a new way to stop attendees from using their smartphones to record video, photos, and audio at events thanks to a new patent from Apple. The iPhone and iPad maker was awarded a patent this week for a system that remotely disables recording with infrared signals. The system could be used in other ways, too, like blocking recording in secure facilities, or by governments to prevent free speech.

Ray gun shooting an iPhone

Apple patent blocks smartphone recording

Apple’s patent describes a way of using infrared technology to temporarily disable smartphone recording features by setting up special transmitters. As long as the transmitters are on, no one would be able to capture photos, video, or audio—assuming your smartphone includes a sensor to detect the infrared signal and its encoded message.

Assuming Apple turns its patent into a shipping product, this could be big for musicians and other performers who don’t want their audiences making recordings. Some artists are already requiring attendees to put their smartphones into locked bags at concerts, but Apple’s invention would let audiences keep their smartphones in hand while remotely disabling their ability to record.

The patent has applications outside of the entertainment industry, too. Banks, for example, could disable recording to help stop criminals from conducting their own surveillance ahead of a robbery, or companies could use the system in their research labs to prevent corporate espionage.

Governments could also block recording at what they deem sensitive events, which means this patent has the potential to be abused as a way to prevent free speech, snub the media, and suppress the public’s voice. The public often takes to social networks to post photos and video of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and government suppression, and that could be curtailed with this kind of technology.

Imagine if Apple’s IR transmitters had been in place in the U.S. House of Representatives when Democrats staged a sit-in to force action on assault rifle controls. The Republican party controls the cameras, and shut them off when the sit-in began. Disabling smartphone recording would’ve kept legislators from recording the event themselves and sharing their photos and video online.

Getting a patent doesn’t, however, mean that Apple is going to turn its camera disabling system into an actual product—and if it does, phones that haven’t been designed to detect the embedded signals will still be able to snap photos and video just as they always have. That means, at least for now, musicians will bag audience phones and governments won’t have an easy way to suppress the public’s voice.

[Thanks to Fortune for the heads up]

10 Comments Add a comment

  1. Or when the cops are about to break up a peaceful protest.
    Or when authorities are going to clear a homeless camp and don’t want anyone to know what they really did.
    The range of abuse this could allow is vast.
    OTOH I can see and empathize with the performers who are sick of seeing the back side of phones. Of seeing their performance online and the proceeds going to someone else. Didn’t Taylor Swift or someone just last week stop her performance and tell someone to put the damn phone away? A few years ago I was in the middle of a performance when someone decided to take a FLASH PICTURE of the sky during my Planetarium show. Really, I can empathize with the urge

  2. Jeff:

    As an alternative theory, by owning the patent for remotely disabling recording, Apple can effectively control (i.e. block) the distribution of this particular technology to any parties they deem untrustworthy, or effectively prevent its licensing altogether. Controlling such a powerful tool has its advantages, particularly for a company committed to empowerment of the individual.

    This does not prevent other parties, notably state parties, from developing their own solutions. Given their known capability to disrupt any number of of signals, it would be foolish to assume that such parties have not already embarked down that path, and can not do so imminently, if not presently.

    Meanwhile, I should rather that Apple hold that patent than to allow the technology into the wild. Wouldn’t you?

  3. [Quote] Systems and methods for receiving infrared data with a camera designed to detect images based on visible light are provided. A system can include a camera and image processing circuitry electrically coupled to the camera. The image processing circuitry can determine whether each image detected by the camera includes an infrared signal with encoded data. If the image processing circuitry determines that an image includes an infrared signal with encoded data, the circuitry may route at least a portion of the image (e.g., the infrared signal) to circuitry operative to decode the encoded data. If the image processing circuitry determines that an image does not include an infrared signal with encoded data, the circuitry may route the image to a display or storage. Images routed to the display or storage can then be used as individual pictures or frames in a video because those images do not include any effects of infrared light communications. [/quote]

  4. brett_x

    I was thinking the same as wab95 .. that is.. especially with their record on human rights issues… i doubt Apple would make it easy for “the state” to block citizens (especially their customers) from recording things like police brutality.

    Also, it’s kind of absurd to think of Apple (or any single phone manufacturer) employing this technology on their devices. Limiting your use is not a feature people are asking for. It would only compel users to buy a different device.

  5. Imagestealer

    Rocky — there is no sensor.

    According to the quote above from the patent application, the camera circuity becomes the censor (sic). Sneaky and ingenious. Not sure, but a future software upgrade could well implement this even in existing iPhones.

  6. Taping the sensor likely wouldn’t help, since I think that’s the same sensor used for light balance and/or auto-focus.

    If you have law enforcement using this, people will raise a holy stink over it. (as they should!)
    If those people are living in a country that doesn’t normally do such things, they should be able to make sure such things are not allowed – by law, if necessary. If those people are living in a country that does normally do such things… then there’s a deeper problem than the technical one. Also, I would expect a large number of phones or other devices won’t have this built in… yet.

    I particularly like that this handled as line-of-sight. I would consider such a thing entirely unacceptable if the signal were RF and based on proximity.
    And it’s good that this would be built in as regular functionality, rather than devising a system that deliberately disrupts the designed functionality of everyone’s phones/cameras.

    This reminds me in many ways of the EURion constellation, usually printed on money. If your photocopier or scanner detects a specific dot pattern on what you’re copying, then it refuses to work.

    And as always, just because Apple gets a patent doesn’t mean Apple – or anyone else – will ever use it.

  7. I seem to remember hearing about this same thing over a decade ago. Movie theaters were having trouble with people capturing movies with camcorders and then posting them. There was a fair amount of talk about an infrared signal that would be invisible to the naked eye but would prevent camcorders from working. Anyone else remember that?

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