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New Apple patent may appeal to moviegoers — but dictators, too?

TAMPA — Cellular devices annoy people, disrupt sleep and spoil movies. They invite car crashes, security breaches and academic cheating. In some situations, their emanations of light and sound may be "deleterious" to humans.

Says who? Apple Inc.

The maker of the iPhone obtained a patent Aug. 28 for a system that could one day let phone-sensitive locations such as movie theaters detect and remotely disable the functions of wireless devices.

Go to a theater and, in theory, your phone might automatically go to sleep. Enter a locker room or a high-security zone and the camera might quit working.

It's unclear whether Apple will do anything with its idea. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded the company more than 3,500 patents since 1978.

Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huget said the company doesn't discuss patent plans.

In the void, consumers speculate. Shortly after the patent was granted, blogs erupted with a mixture of relief for movie night and fear for democracy.

Could such an apparatus be exploited to cause blackouts of civil uprisings, which have grown increasingly dependent on social media?

That's what some wondered.

"A way to disable people's phones is deeply problematic in a free country," said analyst Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group.

U.S. Patent No. 8,254,902 says nothing about revolutions. It is quietly titled, "Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device."

The 16,000-word document rues the sounds that intrude and the light that escapes. Light, it is noted, may be unwelcome in darkrooms and biology labs.

However, amid concern for light-sensitive bacteria and sleep deprivation, there are brief mentions of police and counter-terrorism applications.

"Covert police or government operations may require complete 'blackout' conditions," the document states.

The patent award drew little notice outside the circles of the cellphone-obsessed. It was overshadowed by Apple's $1 billion patent infringement verdict against Samsung and publicity over the new iPhone 5.

In the four years since the company applied for the phone-disabling patent, location-aware applications have proliferated. For instance, an Android app, Llama, lets users set location profiles, so that phones switch to vibrate at work.

Apple's idea wasn't an app. It proposed using base stations to communicate with incoming wireless devices, remotely modify settings and finally, when the consumer had left the area, return settings to normal.

Vitali Lovich was one of two inventors listed. He submitted his patent proposal during a 2007 Apple internship. Now a software engineer at WiFiSLAM in Mountain View, Calif., he described his ideas in an email exchange, cautioning that he doesn't speak for Apple.

He said he envisioned a system that would be voluntary for regular consumers and less voluntary for employees at sensitive locations such as military facilities.

"If anyone tried to implement a non-voluntary version it would be hard to sell," he said, "and if done secretively, then there would be even more negative blowback once it was inevitably discovered."

Negative blowback? That's what San Francisco's mass transit system experienced last year after silencing cellphones without customer consent.

A transit employee admitted to pulling the plug on phone signals in the subway system to thwart a mass protest, organized after a fatal shooting by a police officer.

In response, the hacker group Anonymous claimed to have posted nude photographs of the transit employee online, and people drew comparisons with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, who cut communication during protests that drove him from office.

Inventor Lovich said he doesn't think oppressive regimes are lacking in their own ways to shut down dissension.

"I think that's like worrying about a home invader cutting you by getting a hold of your kitchen knife," he said, "when they've already walked in with a gun."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

New Apple patent may appeal to moviegoers — but dictators, too? 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 4:32am]
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