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Why People Are Booing Apple's Patent That Blocks The iPhone From Filming

We have the right to film in public places—or do we?

Why People Are Booing Apple's Patent That Blocks The iPhone From Filming

[Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images]

Apple has gotten a patent on a way to shut off an iPhone’s camera by shining an infrared light on it. Or rather, it has patented a way to send information to a phone’s camera in the form of an infrared signal, visible to the iPhone, but invisible to the image-capturing part of the camera. And one of the examples given for possible use of this technology is to disable the device’s camera.

One obvious extrapolation is that cops could use this same technology to stop citizens from recording them (and their bad behavior). Or it could be used to shut down the cameras of the politicians who used social media to broadcast their sit-in at Congress last month, after C-SPAN stopped broadcasting.

The idea is all the more chilling because so many people have iPhones, which would make this technology into a rather effective censorship tool. But let’s take a more rational look at this story. First, tech companies patent everything their employees think of. Patents have many uses other than protecting an invention so that it can be exploited for a fair period by the inventor. They are most often used these days to stifle competition, and as stockpiled weapons to protect against patent lawsuits from others. And importantly, very few patents become real features on real products.

Second, if anyone is going to patent something like this, you probably want it to be Apple, the same company that refused to supply the FBI with a way to hack into our iPhones. Perhaps this idea has been patented so it can be locked away and never used.

However the reality may turn out, the idea is that your camera can be disabled by governments bent on censorship, or by concert venues bent on stopping you from recording a bootleg video (almost certainly legal for your own use). Or by anyone who doesn’t want you taking pictures.

"Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right," says the ACLU on its website, "and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties. Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply."

You, or somebody you know, has probably been harassed when taking pictures in a public place. The automatic-censorship feature in this patent could let anyone shut down your camera, for any reason, with the same regard for the law as shown by your average mall security guard. And while Apple is getting the heat for this particular patent, the real problem is that almost all of our devices are now computers and are therefore controlled by whoever makes them, not by the person who owns them. Our governments are already enjoying unprecedented access to our lives thanks to the technology. Now it seems that the same tech can be used to stop us from doing the same back to them.

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