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Apple’s iPhone 'kill switch' patent: is there cause for panic?

Apple’s iPhone 'kill switch' patent: is there cause for panic?

Apple has recently filed a new patent titled “Systems and Methods for Identifying Unauthorized Users of an Electronic Device" for a mechanism that would effectively allow it to detect any “unauthorised” usage or tampering with the device and notify the “the owner, the police, or the proper authorities.”

The patent states: “In some embodiments, to detect an unauthorized user of the electronic device, the identity of the current user can be determined. If the identity of the current user does not match the identity of the owner of the electronic device, the current user can be detected as an unauthorized user.”

Apple iPhone 4

To explain the filing in its entirety would take much longer than we’ve got right now. But essentially, Apple has devised a variety of means by which it can identify an iPhone in the wrong hands. These include taking geotagged photos of the surrounding environment with the phone’s camera, recording voice to determine whether the user of the device and even the use of a “heartbeat sensor” to match the “unique heartbeat” of the real owner.

It can also analyse the device’s vibration profile “to determine whether it matches the vibration profile for movement types such as, for example, walking, running, riding on a train, riding in a car, flying in a plane, or riding on a bike”. It would then alert the responsible party “via a phone call, voicemail, text message, facsimile message, or any combination of the above”.

iPhone patent drawing

It all sounds perfectly reasonable, and frankly, pretty clever to me. In the unfortunate but likely event your new and expensive kit gets stolen or lost, technology like this could not only be used to protect your data and make your insurance claim a little easier, but potentially locate the device, too.

On a much larger scale, the emergence of this patent is well timed in the aftermath of a £1.2m iPhone scam busted recently.

But how does this affect genuine owners of the device who wish to “jailbreak” it in order to install unauthorised applications and even change providers, as decreed legal in a recent ruling by US lawmakers?

According to the patent: “Jailbreaking” of an electronic device can generally refer to tampering with the device to allow a user to gain access to digital resources that are normally hidden and protected from users. “Unlocking” of a cellular phone can generally refer to removing a restriction that “locks” a cellular phone so it may only be used in specific countries or with specific network providers.

Thus, in some embodiments, an unauthorized user can be detected if it is determined that the electronic device is being jailbroken or unlocked. As yet another example of activities that can indicate tampering with the electronic device, an unauthorized user can be detected when a Subscriber Identity Module (“SIM”) card is removed from or replaced in the electronic device.”

Although it doesn’t specifically mention anything that could affect real users, there is a consistent emphasis on the term “unauthorised user”, which suggests that the technology is being primarily aimed at determining the authenticity of the user in the event there is tampering with the normal functions of the device.

It’s highly likely that a thief would jailbreak a stolen iPhone and replace its SIM card at the first chance they get, and in that situation, being able to locate the device or render it inoperable completely could provide an excellent deterrent to criminals while saving the police, carriers and insurance companies a lot effort.

On the other hand, the patent seems to conveniently ignore the consequences for the real owners who may tamper with their phones “legally”. It’s particularly worrying that just the removal of the SIM card alone could identify the device as being in the hands of an “unauthorised user”, which directly contradicts recent exemptions made to US copyright legislation that makes it perfectly legal for users to unlock their "handsets to execute software applications" and circumvent a software lock of any form on a handset that locks the usage of the phone to one operator’s network.

Of course, there is no reason to assume that Apple would simply block or shut down just about any iPhone that is detected of being tampered with.

The technology might still be able to recognise the real owner of the device, albeit jailbroken, and allow it function normally, thereby not breaching any rules. Though it’s equally likely that it might take action to block cellular functions of the device if the correct SIM card is not in use, as stated in the following clause, and a consequence that is most probably stipulated in the subscriber’s contract anyway.

“When the phone carrier receives the alert notification, the phone carrier can, for example, shutdown any telephone service to the electronic device, shutdown the electronic device itself, or otherwise suitably restrict the functions of the electronic device,” the filing states.

It’s not clear in what circumstances, if at all, carriers have the right to “shutdown the electronic device”, since users are now legally entitled to bypass any mechanism in place in order to connect to a different cellular network. A carrier may reserve the right to suspend the user’s subscription or block the SIM card altogether, but to terminate the device itself? That might raise a few eyebrows out there.

That said, from an outsider’s point of view, Apple’s patent makes a lot of sense. The average consumers, of which there are many, would probably find enhanced security far preferable to the potential benefits of a jailbroken smartphone.

While the system might cause a few jailbreakers to break into sweat, it could, if works as advertised, make thieves and criminal gangs cower in fear. Whether or not there is an ulterior motive behind Apple’s patent is something that I will leave for the conspiracy theorists to decide.

Have an opinion on the patent? Let us know in the comments section below.

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