Fears for civil liberties as Apple patents technology that could remotely disable protesters’ smartphones


  • 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’

By Damien Gayle

PUBLISHED: 09:35 EST, 7 November 2012 | UPDATED: 09:35 EST, 7 November 2012

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’.

Scroll down for video

This still, taken from footage recorded on a smartphone, shows students from the University of California, Davis being pepper sprayed as they stage a sit-down protest. A new Apple patent could disable the phone cameras of protestersBrutality exposed: This still from footage recorded on a phone, shows students from the UC Davis being pepper sprayed as they stage a sit-down protest. A new Apple patent could disable the phone cameras of protesters

‘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.


The furore over Apple’s latest patent is not the first it has been accused of collusion with the authorities.

The Cupertino-based company last month faced claims by hacktivist group AntiSec that it had passed a database of one million Apple users to the FBI.

AntiSec made the accusation as it released the database online, after allegedly stealing the information from an FBI agent’s laptop.

AntiSec had claimed the data is just a piece of the more than 12 million unique identification numbers and personal information on the device owners that it got from a laptop used by an FBI agent.

However, the FBI denied that it ever had that information and Apple also said it had not given the information to the FBI.

‘The FBI has not requested this information from Apple, nor have we provided it to the FBI or any organization, Apple spokesperson Natalie Kerris told AllThingsD.

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’.

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.

‘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’

 Nick Pickles, Big Brother Watch

‘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.’

Now watch smartphone camera footage of U.S. students being pepper sprayed

Click the link below to view the video:

Posted on November 8, 2012, in Politics, Science / Technology, US Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: