But For Video: What Tech Giveth

A twit from Rick Horowitz alerted me to a post by Anonymous on Apple’s new patent application.  No, this one’s not shiny, and there will be no circus announcing it to all the cool kids.

Apple Inc. has patented a technology that would allow the user – businesses, governments or law enforcement officers – remotely disable features of wireless devices, such as taking or sending photographs or video footage.

The patented technology utilizes WiFi, mobile base stations or GPS to send an encoded signal to all wireless devices within a so-called sensitive area, disabling recording functions. The patent lists potential “sensitive areas” as theaters, concert venues or religious ceremonies, but proponents of free speech worry this technology could be used by police who do not wish to be filmed in acts of brutality, for example.

Really, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Just as those magic beams make the toys full of awesome, other magic beams remind us that we’re only allowed as much awesome as Apple, of the government licensee, decides we deserve.

“As wireless devices such as cellular telephones, pagers, personal media devices and smartphones become ubiquitous, more and more people are carrying these devices in various social and professional settings. The result is that these wireless devices can often annoy, frustrate, and even threaten people in sensitive venues,” states the patent. “Additionally, the wireless transmission of sensitive information to a remote source is one example of a threat to security. This sensitive information could be anything from classified government information to questions or answers to an examination administered in an academic setting.”

There are as many variations on this theme as there are imaginations, from protecting national security from the terrorists to precluding texting in a moving car.  Who doesn’t hate it when some jerk’s phone rings during a movie, even after they’ve played that awful warning about how leaving your phone on makes you douche.

It hardly seems a huge stretch for Apple to have invented this technology. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that it took this long.  This seems kinda obvious in retrospect, and not all that technologically difficult to create.

But it shares the same issues with every other good idea designed, and proclaimed, to save us from our foolishness and other’s malevolence.  When applied in ways we like, it’s great. When applied in ways we don’t like, it’s not. Once out there, it can be applied any damn way whoever uses the technology pleases.

And that could, as Rick suggests, very well mean the death of video of police misconduct. As well as a lot of other things we’ve come to recognize as changing the nature of the relationship between the government and its citizens.  For the moment, we are closer (not close, but closer) to parity than we have been since the founding fathers shared grog in Philly.  That could change really fast.

Then again, this may also just be the next phase of the technological arms race.  Create tech. Block tech. Overcome tech block, and so forth.  The next patent could well be one for a device that will function despite whatever method of blocking is used. Indeed, this could be a push to create better, faster, more reliable waves to beam our stuff back and forth, just to beat Apple at its own game.

The answer of geeks to every technological issue is more technology.  Often, that misses the point when the problem is one created by law.  Geeks seek solutions using scalpels, while the law uses a bludgeon wielded by people whose only real skill is brute sophistry.

What makes Apple’s patent singularly disturbing is that it melds technology with the government’s interest in keeping its sausage making under wraps.  To the extent that technology has enabled us to accomplish things, such as videotaping police abuse and lies, that we’ve been arguing about forever but never before able to prove, it has the capacity to end this golden age of transparency.  Will we be left with selfies, lunch and kitteh pics on Instagram as reminders of how we were once able to show rather than tell?

There is no stopping the speeding technology freight train. If it wasn’t Apple, someone else would have patented technology that would allow the government to accomplish the goal of shutting us down.  We are still in the infancy of the Age of Technology, and are barely capable of crawling, no less walking or running.  Where this all ends up one hundred, five hundred, years from now is beyond our imagination.

But for every person who believes, with every iota of their being, that the glory of technology will save us from whatever ails us, it’s worthwhile to remember that whatever technology giveth, technology can taketh away.  This isn’t an argument, or a forecast. Whatever the future will bring will happen whether we agree upon it or not.

This should serve as a reminder that seeing only the side that works for us, makes us happy, is cool and shiny, is foolish and myopic.  All the fuzzy adjectives in the world aren’t going to change our future, and we are still a ways off from knowing whether it will be a tech Utopia or Dystopia.  The answer, in all likelihood, will be up to us, and whenever humans enter into the mix, there is terrible room for error.

12 thoughts on “But For Video: What Tech Giveth

  1. John Burgess

    I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for laws that prohibit the police from installing signal-killers in patrol cars. My lung capacity is better suited for laws mandating signal-killers in patrol cars.

    1. SHG Post author

      Now if only they can combine signal-killers with personal video worn by individual police, the possibilities are endless.

  2. tim

    The issue with monitoring patent applications is that the vast majority of them never show up in actual products. Apple – like all tech companies – patent every damn thing possible. Apple actually came late to this process – only starting to a portfolio of patents after being sued by patent trolls during the iPod days.

    But I have a serious question. I’m not a lawyer but work with them every day and I have been following this blog for sometime. Why are so many lawyers luddites? You clearly are.

      1. RKTlaw

        Well, let’s see, the original Luddites were artisans who were concerned that technology would leave them replaced with poorly paid common laborers who had no real skill. So, that may be your first clue.

    1. Curmudgeon Geographer

      “Apple actually came late to this process – only starting to a portfolio of patents after being sued by patent trolls during the iPod days.”

      Picking a nit here that is off topic… This is wrong. Apple started its patent war chest after its unsuccessful lawsuit against Microsoft for violating Apple copyright when Microsoft imitated much of the MacOS look for Windows. Copyright failed so this began Apple’s effort to patent everything. FWIW, many observers inaccurately point that Apple imitated Xerox, but Apple paid Xerox with a stock deal.

      1. SHG Post author

        Tim went down a blind alley when he focused on Apple’s patent portfolio, as if that made any difference at all. While I appreciate your correcting the details, it is, of course, not really relevant to the issue raised in the post. I say this so neither Tim nor anyone else will go any further with this. It just doesn’t matter.

  3. Jason Truitt

    Wait, is he saying that someone who blogs and tweets regularly is opposed to technonogy, or does he not know what Luddite means?

  4. Patrick Maupin

    it’s worthwhile to remember that whatever technology giveth, technology can taketh away.

    Technology is a double-edged sword, to be sure, but it’s fairly hard to take away the knowledge that something that we are doing now is possible.

    In any case, think of all the good technology in your life — not the great 200 year old stuff, just the good 5-30 year old stuff. Even the stuff that you find useful probably requires occasional human intervention, and that’s after it was deemed worthy enough to sell to you, and worthy enough for you to consider purchasing it. Making stuff work exactly as intended is hard. Making stuff work forever under all conditions including malicious attacks is really hard, and making that stuff work without real-world testcases is damn near impossible. Even if this technology is actually feasible (which I find highly doubtful), the uproar emanating from the failed initial use cases will be phenomenal. “But for video: Can the government sue Apple for breach of contract after it finishes cleaning up the riots?” isn’t very catchy, but I’m sure when the time comes you’ll pithify it for us.

    What makes Apple’s patent singularly disturbing is that it melds technology with the government’s interest in keeping its sausage making under wraps.

    We’ve seen a very similar movie before, but with entrenched interests powerful enough to consider the government a mere tool in their hands. In the early 2000s, the MPAA/RIAA tried to close the “analog hole” that lets somebody record video by pointing a camera at the screen. They even had a bill in congress (Digital Transition Content Security Act). The simplistic thinking was that an invisible/inaudible signal could let all the ADCs (analog to digital converters) in the vicinity know to shut down, and all ADCs henceforth would be required to honor such a shut down command. Which, of course, is exactly what you want your pacemaker to do when Britney Spears comes on the radio, but that’s one of the very few positive benefits of the technology. In any case, once they outlaw non-conformant ADCs, only outlaws (and the Chinese and Japanese and Taiwanese and Koreans, and anybody else who can build this stuff) will have non-conformant ADCs.

  5. delurking

    I think this patent and any devices that result based on it are aimed at particular use cases – most likely workplaces where recording devices are prohibited but the employer would like employees to carry employer-issued cell phones. There are plenty of government buildings where this is the case, and a lot of people work for the government. Blackberry, for a while, owned this entire market by selling a version of its smartphone that didn’t have a camera.

    It is exceedingly unlikely that Apple has a way to turn off all cameras remotely; it is far more likely that they have a system that would allow their phone cameras to be turned off securely and remotely. I would be very surprised if Apple or anyone else could get away with selling a phone whose camera could be turned off remotely without the knowledge and consent of the owner.

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