When all the iPhones strike thirteen

The title of this post, lifted from Orwell’s famous opening sentence of 1984 (“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen”) is not far from the news of Apple’s recent patent for an unspecified authority’s centralized control of iPhones, granted August 28, 2012.

Before I get there, however, I just want to point out a recent and shrill warning from Apple founder Steve Wozniak:

I think it’s going to be horrendous. I think there are going to be a lot of horrible problems in the next five years. […] With the cloud, you don’t own anything. You already signed it away. I want to feel that I own things.

Now, back to the Apple US patent #8,254,902 in the news:

Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device
Inventors: Bell; Michael (Cupertino, CA), Lovich; Vitali (Toronto, CA)
Assignee: Apple Inc. (Cupertino, CA)
Appl. No.: 12/215,592
Filed: June 26, 2008

My favorite example in the patent text is this:

In an automotive setting, the present invention may be used to enforce policy upon a mobile device (e.g., smartphone or the like) while a user is driving, such as via the aforementioned position location (e.g., GPS) apparatus. For instance, one policy of a cellular service provider may be to blank out or prevent incoming calls to a user while that user is in a vehicle that is determined to be moving over time, unless so-called “hands free” technology (e.g., a suitable Bluetooth headset profile) is in use simultaneously. In this fashion, the user would be all but prevented from being distracted by their cellular phone while driving unless they are operating in hands-free mode (as will be mandated by California State law in July of 2008 for example).

Note the glaringly obvious problems with this concept.

First, how does the service provider know whether the phone is used by someone driving or a passenger? The control simply can’t work without a crucial piece of information that it will never get automatically. And then imagine every Apple user on a train or bus finding their phones rendered inoperable by a benevolent service provider due to lack of a “suitable Bluetooth headset.”

Second, the control begs the obvious and trivial workaround, which would fake a Bluetooth headset rendering the control useless. Unless, of course, Apple or the service provider gets a lock on what is accepted as “suitable” and at this point you should see the very slippery and ugly slope…

Third, WTF? Seriously, who in their right mind thinks a service provider is going to get this feature/functionality right and make users happy? I would wager that 9 times out of 10 the devices would stop working completely even when a “suitable” something is present and enabled. If you think a phone comes with service hiccups now you definitely don’t want a faceless provider taking control of it at a micro-level. Phone accidentally blocked? Who you gonna’ call?

Fourth, it begs the question of power, politics and thus authority. Did the user willingly request or grant a lock-down option to the service provider? Is the service provider operating on behalf of a regulatory authority as an enforcement body? This is not just another option on the phone. This is a patent specifically designed to bypass personal control of a private asset and provide a hook for outside authoritarian control.

And that’s just one paragraph. Here are some other funny ones I leave to you to slice apart with common sense…like a hot knife through butter-flavored water. Who is the authority on these decisions? In other words, central control by whom and with what trust? Who is Apple, in diefiance of the Woz warning, serving with the capability to usurp individual control?

Want to put Apple devices into airplane mode for unexplained reasons? Their patent enables that.

an airline operator or airport may cause the mobile device to enter into an “airplane” mode, wherein all electromagnetic emissions of significance are prevented, at least during flight, thereby more affirmatively preventing interference with aircraft communications or instrumentation and enhancing safety

The patent suggests marketing a suppression of device capability as something VIP-level and to “pay extra for the peace of mind”

Different facilities may enact different “lockdown” modes. For instance, a locker room facility may issue a command that prevents use of a cellular phone camera or laptop computer camera while in that area, thereby preventing surreptitious imaging of customers/users. Customers of such facilities may be willing to pay extra for the peace of mind associated with knowing that they are not being secretly photographed.

And of course no disabling technology would be worth mentioning unless you can stop terrorists

if a terrorist threat or other security breach is detected, the airport may disable at least a portion of the wireless communications within a terminal using a policy command, thereby potentially frustrating communications between individual terrorists or other criminals

For perspective, this is not the first patent I’ve noticed that Apple has requested that gives a very poorly defined “authority” (e.g. an outsider) the ability to disable functionality of a user’s iPhone. In 2011 the US patent 20110128384 described sending infrared signals to the iPhone camera that would render it useless. The examples provided in that patent included a concert where the organizers would want to centrally disable all the cameras in Apple devices.

Inventors: Tiscareno; Victor; (Issaquah, WA) ; Jonhson; Kevin; (Mundelein, IL) ; Lawrence; Cindy; (University Place, WA)
Assignee: Apple Inc. Cupertino CA
Serial No.: 629678
Series Code: 12
Filed: December 2, 2009

This other patent very clearly decreases the value of owning an Apple device. Hey, look, it has a camera built-in but an infrared signal from some other person decides for you when you can take pictures. Oh, what’s that? An infrared filter to block the incoming control signal…? Value restored.

Without further ado I’ve attempted to create a graphic mashup to illustrate some of the latest Apple news. A spaceship campus, a creepy Orwellian freedom-killing patent announcement, and of course an update to their phone.

Full disclosure: as I announced in my July 2010 presentation at The Next HOPE in NYC, after 21 years of owning Apple devices I quit use of their products for the same reason I started using them in the first place. And that’s why today I use an N9.

Updated to add: Wired tells of a lawsuit that gives some additional perspective

The ACLU has sued the District of Columbia and two police officers for allegedly seizing the cellphone of a man who photographed a police officer allegedly mistreating a citizen, and for then stealing his memory card.

Is the ACLU prepared to sue Apple service providers for disabling the iPhone?

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