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.