Make us your home page
Instagram

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally

    Business

    TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

    From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
  2. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members

    News

    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  3. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion

    Markets

    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]
  4. Amid U.S. real estate buying binge by foreign investors, Florida remains first choice

    Real Estate

    Foreign investment in U.S. residential real estate recently skyrocketed to a new high with nearly half of all foreign sales happening in Florida, California and Texas.

    A National Association of Realtors annual survey found record volume and activity by foreign buyers of U.S. real estate. Florida had the highest foreign investment activity, followed by California and Texas. [National Association of Realtors]
  5. Trigaux: Tampa Bay health care leaders wary of getting too far ahead in disruptive times

    Business

    Are attempts to repeal Obamacare dead for the foreseeable future? Might the Affordable Care Act (ACA), now in dire limbo, be revived? Will Medicaid coverage for the most in need be gutted? Can Republicans now in charge of the White House, Senate and House ever agree to deliver a substitute health care plan that people …

    Natalia Ricabal of Lutz, 12 years old, joined other pediatric cancer patients in Washington in July to urge Congress to protect Medicaid coverage that helped patients like Ricabal fight cancer. She was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in 2013 and has undergone extensive treatments at BayCare's St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa. [Courtesy of BayCare]