Apple is developing software that can detect when iPhone owners are using their cameras and disable the function, a report last week discovered.
The technology would trigger an infrared sensor, like the kind that is often installed at concert venues, which would instruct the iPhone to shut off its camera. Apple filed the patent application 18 months ago in California, but only became public knowledge after the Daily Mail uncovered the documents.
Apple said the company created the software to prevent users from recording and distributing videos of live concerts to which broadcasters have already bought exclusive rights. But media reform groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Free Press have said that the "kill switch" technology carries with it a more ominous implication - such as what would happen if a government received access to the software.
Free Press campaign director Tim Karr notes that such worst-case scenarios are supported by the recent actions of the police department in Rochester, New York, where a woman was arrested for recording officers making a traffic stop in May. Emily Good was charged with obstruction of governmental administration when she used her iPhone to videotape three white police officers pull over a black man in front of her house, which she believed could have been an example of racial profiling; Officer Mario Masic arrested Good after she refused to leave her front lawn and go back into her house.
"[This] is my front yard. I'm just recording what you're doing, it's my right," Good can be heard saying on the May 12 video. "It's my right to be in my yard and I'm sorry you don't feel safe. All I have is a camera.... I have no weapons." She is arrested approximately two minutes into the video.
Prosecutors dismissed the charge on June 27 after reviewing the evidence.
"We want to make it clear that it is not the policy or practice of the Rochester Police Department to prevent citizens from observing its activities - including photographing or videotaping - as long as it does not interfere with the safe conduct of those activities," said Rochester Mayor Thomas S. Richard, police Chief James Sheppard and City Council President Lovely A. Warren in a joint statement.
But Karr points out that Apple's patent application explains that its kill-switch technology would prevent users from capturing videos or pictures in areas where infrared sensors are present - including "on stages, throughout public squares, or, conceivably, on police helmets."
"You could find that infrared signal being sent out anywhere," EFF Fellow Michael Barclay said, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway station where Oakland resident Oscar Grant was shot and killed by an officer. The incident "was recorded on people's cell phones - the entire shooting," Barclay said. The technology "could potentially be used to suppress legitimate speech."
Government access to the software is also particularly dangerous in countries in the Middle East where new media served an important role in several revolutions against oppressive dictatorships, EFF staff attorney Julie Samuels said.
"The availability of mobile phones with video capability has allowed activists around the world to capture and disseminate important footage, often in the absence of news reporting," Samuels said. "If a government were to gain access to and utilize Apple's technology, the result could mean disastrous consequences."
Karr also points out that such recent examples of important footage include the viral cell phone video of the shooting death of a young Iranian woman named Neda, who was killed by a government militiaman during a demonstration against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the widespread sharing of the video became one of the most influential events to bring global attention to Ahmadinejad's regime and the human rights crisis in Iran.
"What would we know of Neda's shocking death had Iranian security forces disabled that camera?" Karr wrote in a blog post.
The Save the Internet coalition published a petition addressed to Apple CEO Steve Jobs demanding that the company stop developing the technology, stating that it would "give tyrants the power to stem the flow of protest videos and crack down on their citizens with impunity."
"[Just] imagine what would happen if this technology fell into the hands of repressive regimes," the petition states. "As we've seen in Egypt and elsewhere, the images and videos we take with our phones can be powerful forms of free speech.... This tool could be used to silence the voices of protestors and to stifle a critical means of free expression."