- Technology would broadcast a signal to automatically shut down smartphone features, or even the entire phone
- Apple claims it would most likely be used to prevent copyright theft or to guarantee privacy in sensitive areas
- Civil liberties campaigners fear it could be misused by the authorities to silence ‘awkward citizens’
Apple have received a patent for a technology that could allow the police to disable protesters smartphones, it has emerged.
The new technology would act as a ‘kill switch’ for smartphones, disabling any cameras on the devices and blocking their connection to mobile networks.
Apple stresses that the function would be most likely used to prevent copyright theft, such as in cinemas, or to stop phone cameras being used in inappropriate places, like department store changing rooms.
However, in the filing for U.S. Patent No. 8,254,902, the company adds that ‘covert police or government operations may require complete “blackout” conditions’.
‘Additionally,’ it says, ‘the wireless transmission of sensitive information to a remote source is one example of a threat to security.
‘This sensitive information could be anything from classified government information to questions or answers to an examination administered in an academic setting.’
That statement suggests that police and other authorities could use the newly patented feature during protests or political rallies to block transmission of video footage or photographs from the scene.
In many highly publicised instances, such as during the Arab Spring revolutions and even the West’s own Occupy protests, pictures and footage from smartphones have proved a crucial tool for citizen journalists documenting police behaviour.
In one highly publicised case, 21 students from the University of California, Davis were awarded settlements of $30,000 each after a police officer attacked them with pepper spray as they staged a sit-down protest.
Footage of that incident was filmed on the smartphones of dozens of bystanders and eventually broadcast around the world, leading to the suspension of two officers involved and the resignation of their superior officer.
Civil rights campaigners warn that the new technology could limit the ability of concerned citizens to gather evidence of such excessive behaviour by police and security forces.
The patent for ‘Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device’ was granted in late-August and would allow authorities to change ‘one or more functional or operational aspects of a wireless device, such as upon the occurrence of a certain event’.
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This means that those with access to the technology could use it 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’.
The patent filing makes clear that although Apple may implement the feature, any decision on whether to use it would be down to governments, businesses and network operators.
The technology works via mobile networks, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or GPS, and would send an encoded signal that can selectively shut down features of smartphones within range depending on what kind of policy needs to be enforced.
Apple claims the technology to shut down increasingly ubiquitous wireless devices is necessary since they ‘can often annoy, frustrate, and even threaten people in sensitive venues’. However, civil rights campaigners have already registered their concern that authorities could misuse the technology.
Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘It’s been a fact that modern phones are in reality tracking devices that let us make calls, but the idea that awkward citizens might find their phone shut down at the behest of a Government agency is a very worrying thought and not one that fits with democratic principles.
‘Only last year we had Chinese state media praising British politicians for considering a blackout of social media sites and as with the iPhone, this idea could have been made in China.’
Jules Carey of Tuckers solicitors, who represented the family of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor who died after he was struck by a police officer at protests against the G20 in 2009, told MailOnline the technology could stop police being held to account for their actions.
‘There is something very sinister about governments and the police having the power to block all communication and recording devices except their own,’ he said. ‘This is the sort of technology you might expect to see in China but not a western democracy.
‘Time and again it is citizen journalism, little brother, which exposes the truth about altercations between citizens and the state.
‘Mobile phone video recordings and photographs played a significant role in exposing the truth concerning the death of Ian Tomlinson and have regularly been used to expose violent or racist police officers.
‘I struggle to think of any justification for the use of this technology in a democratic society and in some circumstances – such 7/7 – a phone shut down would have hampered the rescue effort and prevented vital evidence being preserved.’
Val Swain of the Network for Police Monitoring, a campaign group that monitors the activities of police in public order situations, said the technology had the potential to make policing even less transparent.
‘Netpol and our partners use photographs and video a great deal to monitor and record police behaviour. We would certainly be very concerned at any attempts to limit the freedom to do this,’ she told MailOnline.
‘Texts, tweets, photos and videos are used a great deal by protesters, not only to tell each other what is going on, but also to tell the outside world. The disruption of this would be extremely serious.
‘I would also be concerned at the potential for use of this technology by private companies, particularly those who are targeted by protests. Might they be tempted to ‘switch off’ protesters phones to limit bad publicity?
‘Policing in the UK is anything but transparent. The general public has little trust in the state authorities to “come clean” over the use of this sort of technology.
‘This in itself makes people fearful and anxious. What is needed is for the police to me much more open and honest about the way they police us generally, and particularly the way they police public protests.’