Apple's Patent for Remotely Disabling Phone Cameras Has a Range of (Other) Applications

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Apple this week won approval for a patent it filed in 2011 covering a technology to remotely block cell phones from taking pictures or videos.

The patent, granted on Tuesday by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, describes a way to use infrared signals to send encoded data to cell phones via their cameras. The data could contain either instructions to the cell phone's control circuitry to, say, disable the camera. Or it could contain additional information.

The patent showed two possible applications of each. The first is an infrared emitter placed near an object in a museum (Apple's example is an Aztec Water Jug). If you point the phone camera at the object, it receives an infrared signal instructing the cell phone to give the user additional information about the jug. In Apple's second example, the infrared signal instructs the cell phone to disable recording. (See graphics contained in the patent application below.)

In other words, one application of this technology giveth, while the other taketh away. But... not so fast. First of all, Apple gives no indication in its application as to whether it plans to deploy this technology.

But its potential has wide-ranging ramifications for the music industry, the media and beyond, says David Wendell Phillips, who is Of Counsel at O&A, P.C. and former General Counsel for IGN, AOL and Napster when it was owned by Bertelsmann.

"It's part of a series of related patents" that both Apple and Google are racing to file, Phillips says. "I see this as part of their battle to map the indoors and to connect the digital and physical worlds. This is one of many similar technologies, including iBeacons over Bluetooth, wifi and others that can be used to transmit location-based data and interact with your phone within a defined area."

Whether it's to distribute ads as you walk by a store, or to display a 3D blueprint of a burning building in a heads-up display worn by a firefighter, big tech companies like Apple are exploring multiple options to more tightly integrate their devices and services with the physical world, Phillips says.

For performers, this technology (if it ever gets developed) could deliver dual benefits, but not without cost. Artists could establish camera-free zones at their performances -- and potentially incur the ire of fans who resent the curb on their liberties. Alternatively, they could go the opposite route and encourage fans to use their cameras and, as a result, receive, say a discount for merchandise. Artists also could potentially watermark photos taken at the concert, though there's no mention of that possibility in the patent, Phillips said.

"We have these amazing cell phones that haven't been fully integrated in the real world. Can we augment or restrict that power so people can abide by the rules of a venue?" Phillips said. "Even if Apple doesn't actually execute on this particular patent, they're executing within this sphere, which is interesting."

Jon Maples, a digital music consultant and former head of product for Rhapsody, said similar technologies are being used to disable phones, including one recently used by Alicia Keys during a recent concert in Manhattan. There, security personnel requested concert-goers to place their cell phones in a pouch that locks shut. They're able to keep their cell phones with them, but they just can't use it unless they go outside and request that the pouch is unlocked.

There are other ramifications of establishing no-camera zones. 

"On the one hand you can imagine the ability to create a perimeter that can disable a paparazzi zone of influence," Phillips said. "On the other hand, do you have the right to control that within a public area? Does that conflict with the right to film? As a private citizen, I have a right to video the police in a public setting. Does a police officer have the right to restrict my ability to film him?"

As these dicey questions of civil liberties arise, Apple is unlikely to commercialize its camera-blocking patent, said Maples.

"We all saw how ferociously they went after the government for unlocking an iPhone," he said. "I can't imagine them now releasing a technology that would block your phone. That really goes against the grain of what Apple stands for. Apple has always been about making technology as easy as simple to use as possible, especially with hardware. They just wouldn't just disable you from the machine that you bought from them."