A patent Apple was granted Tuesday could stop concertgoers from holding up their phones during live shows or bootleggers from recording movies in theaters. But it has some wondering how it could also be used to stifle free speech.
The patent is for an infrared system that could transmit data to a smartphone or tablet in a museum, or to temporarily disable the camera of certain devices.
As the debate over the limits of internet speech and cyber-surveillance intensifies, the patent raises questions about how concerns that a technology could be used negatively should affect that technology's development. Should Apple consider how authoritarian governments or law enforcement could use the system to stop the documentation of abuse or misconduct, or how criminals could use it to disable video surveillance?
Vivek Krishnamurthy, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School's Cyberlaw Clinic, says these concerns should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Any time there is the possibility of an invention or device being used to shut down communication mediums and methods of capturing information, there should be some concern,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s pretty remote and speculative with regard to the awarding of this particular patent,” he says, adding countless patents are never developed.
It even might be a good thing Apple was granted the patent, says Mr. Krishnamurthy, because of its strong civil liberties record, as evidenced by its refusal to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
The system described in the patent would use invisible infrared emitters to transmit a signal to any "electronic device with an image sensor," such as a smartphone, tablet, laptop, video recorder, or camera. Remote controls to turn on televisions or DVD players use similar technology already.
In the patent, Apple describes its potential applications. Museums, writes Apple, can incorporate the technology to transmit data to a phone. Imagine pointing your phone at artwork, and receiving information about it. Apple also describes how venues and movie theaters can transmit an infrared signal that temporarily and remotely disables the camera or video functions of certain devices, perhaps for copyright purposes.
When the website, Patently Apple, first reported on the infrared system in 2011, however, free speech advocates envisioned how it could be exploited.
Save The Internet, a coalition led by the Free Speech advocacy group, wrote an open letter to then-Apple chief executive Steve Jobs that warned about this technology falling into the wrong hands.
“Thousands of people across the Middle East have used cellphone cameras to document 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,” it writes. “Just imagine what would happen if this technology fell into the hands of repressive regimes.”
Around the same time the letter was published on SavetheInternet.com, the government of Bahrain tried to install spyware on the smartphones of activists to track them and their communications.
However, the infrared system comes as musicians have complained about fans recording their concerts. Adele, the British singer and songwriter, stopped a concert in Italy in May to complain about a woman with a tripod in the audience.
“I want to tell that lady as well, can you stop filming me with a video camera because I'm really here in real life," said Adele, in the middle of her performance. "You can enjoy it in real life, rather than through your camera."
Peter Swire, a professor of law and ethics at Georgia Tech, sees parallels to the dispute between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the San Bernardino shooter's phone and the encryption debate.
“As with encryption, the patented device is a tool that can be used for noble or evil purposes,” writes Mr. Swire, in an email to the Monitor Thursday. “If authoritarian authorities use it to shield their abusive practices, then that is evil. If the device stops a Peeping Tom from taking photos in the showers, then we should like it.”