Apple remote-mobile device management patent raises red flags

Despite legitimate uses, libertarians say tech-enforced policy is 'taking control out of the hands of the user and putting it in the third party's'

An Apple patent for technology that could be used to remotely turn off an iPhone camera or switch the device into sleep mode has raised the question of whether any innovation can be introduced in the market without the risk of abuse.

Privacy concerns raised by recent revelations of Internet monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has heightened people's sensitivity to government intrusion. The Apple patent adds to the worries of civil libertarians by making it possible to prevent people from using their smartphone's camera during protests, for example.

U.S. Patent No. 8,254,902, first filed in 2008, describes in broad terms a technology that would broadcast a signal that could turn off a number of smartphone features, including the still and video camera, the ringer, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The signal could also place the device in sleep mode.

In the patent, Apple lists scenarios in which the technology would be useful, such as in concert halls, theaters and movie houses. The innovation could also be useful in offices, where privacy concerns could lead a company to block the use of cameras, or in colleges to prevent students from communicating during tests.

Despite the legitimate uses, civil libertarians argue that the technology still amounts to people being denied the full use of their property. Rather than block the device, people using phones during a movie or to cheat during a test can be told to leave.

Kurt Opsahl, civil liberties lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "Having a technology-enforced policy, where it is just sending out the signal to take control of the user's device, that seems to be taking control out of the hands of the user and putting it in the third party's."

While raising concerns about the technology, the EFF does not advocate a ban. Instead, people should refuse to buy a smartphone that others can easily control. Users with the know-how should root the device to gain access to the operating system and disconnect the control capabilities.

[Also see: Mobile device management shifts to the cloud]

Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, has written extensively about how to deal with hypothetical problems that could arise from the use of new technology. He argues that if society focuses too much on the "endless parade of horribles" that could happen, then the result could be less innovation, which would lead to lower quality goods, slower economic growth and a decline in the overall standard of living.

"If you try to plan for every harm and every worst case, then you don't get the benefits from the best case," Thierer told CSOonline.

Instead, companies building the technology should educate consumers, whether people or businesses, about proper use and corporate and personal responsibility, Thierer said. When abuse takes place, then regulations may become necessary or the use of litigation to punish misbehavior.

"This is the way we've done it in one industry after another and for one technology after another for many, many years now," Thierer said. "There's no reason information technology should be any different."

Litigation is not new to the EFF, which has a lawsuit pending against the NSA for conducting massive data collection on Americans through the Internet. While the operation is aimed at detecting terrorist plots between people in and outside the U.S., the EFF claims the NSA has violated the privacy rights of Americans.

If Apple decides to introduce the patented technology into products and the government uses it, then the EFF would consider litigation against the latter. "If the government were to use this, then it raises serious legal issues," Opsahl said. 

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