Apple patents mobile camera that other people can shut off

An Apple patent describes a system for allowing venue owners to override compliant cameras. The patent describes using an infrared signal that compliant cameras would detect; in the presence of this signal, the device would not allow its owner to activate its record function. It is intended for use at live events and galleries and museums, and it will be a tremendous boon to policemen who shoot unarmed subway riders, despotic armies putting down revolutions as well as anyone else who is breaking the law or exercising coercive power.

This is part of an increasing trend to designing hardware and software that allows remote parties to override the instructions of the owners and users of devices. This trend, coupled with the increasing degree to which devices are privy to our secrets, our sensitive information, and even our biological functions, worries me an awful lot.

Apple's killjoy patent may thwart illegal mobile recording


  1. Tell me again why Apple is such a wonderful company that they inspire such cultish devotion?

      1. reminder that ‘cult’ has an ACTUAL definition which seriously affects the lives of human beings and is trivialised by using the term to describe middle-class computer nerds preferring one consumer electronics product over another on aesthetic grounds.

    1. Because that’s kind of the definition of a cult: frenzied emotional response with a lack of actual critical thinking.

      Don’t you understand? It’s *shiny*!

      1. frenzied emotional response with a lack of actual critical thinking

        [cow dry-humps MacBook Pro]

        That’s not true.

    1. Would this not be foiled by tape over the IR sensor?
      Talk like that will get you an interview with the Ministry of Image Control.

    2. Try pointing a TV remote at a digital camera sometime, they’re very good at picking up IR.

      You won’t be able to block the IR sensor as the sensor will be the camera CCD chip itself :P

      1. @koichan: Assuming in some strange universe this actually came to pass, you could put an IR filter over the lens that, you guessed it, filters out the IR wavelength.

      2. however, the lens, and even the sensor itself can have an IR filter, to remove the IR light, built directly into it.

      3. I imagine it’s possible to buy an infrared lens filter from a good camera shop and kludge it over your iphone.

        That said, you shouldn’t have to do something like that to use your own device.

      4. Most cameras have a hotmirror filter to cut out IR but let visible light through. You could add an additional hotmirror if the built in one isn’t blocking enough of the signal.
        Might still be a problem if the disable signal was in the visible spectrum.

    3. All digital cameras see IR, so no, putting a piece of tape over an IR sensor would not necessarily stop this from happening.

      Go ahead and point your camera towards your remote control. You’ll see the flashing light.

  2. So put a piece of black tape over the IR sensor.

    BTW, Apple doesn’t necessarily have to use this concept in their /own/ products. It’s a patent troll. Now, whenever any other company wants to implement it, Apple collects royalties.

    1. Yeah, my hope is that they’ve patented it to prevent OTHER PEOPLE from using it and don’t actually use it in any of their products. Who knows, the “camera disable” part of the patent could be a smokescreen for the real application — possibly something like automatic light/color leveling.

  3. Patents can be used to prevent other people from doing things; if you can think of a way to do something you dislike, describe it in a manner that qualifies for patent protection and then simply refuse to license it.

  4. This has already been news at ArseTechnica and Slashdork, a few times. But this is the first time I got to see the image from the patent application, thanks!

    Which leads me to the following question: Is Apple tipping their hand about the Time Travel module in their upcoming phones? I’d love to go back to 1963 and catch that fab Mersey Beat combo! Is it the Big Three?

  5. What would encourage them to do this? Is there some government or corporate version of the iPhone that would sell better if the government / company knew they could actively disable the device?

    I cannot see why a customer would agree to external control of their device.

    1. “I cannot see why a customer would agree to external control of their device.”

      Anyone who owns an iPhone already agrees to external control of their device.

  6. we (adafruit) saw this and are looking forward to hacking around with this, it will be easy to reverse engineer and then you can build a device that turns off iphone / idevices with this built in outside the theaters and anywhere else.

  7. Let’s hope this is one patent Google doesn’t cross license for Android. Just another reason I will never buy an Apple product or service.

  8. There will be a demand for cases that cover that IR port. Even if it’s too close to the camera lens (or incorporated into the camera optics), an IR cut-off filter would defeat it.

  9. Can we get this reversed. A federal crime to film someone with a “do not tape” emitter on their lapel.

  10. unless they can build the sensor into the lens of the camera, there’ll be a way to get around this by putting tape over the sensor, or by paying someone to disconnect it, or by using a case that covers it up. still, we shouldn’t have to :-/

  11. “This is part of an increasing trend to designing hardware and software that allows remote parties to override the instructions of the owners and users of devices.” = describes the TV-B-Gone, which seems to be beloved by boingers. I can see where the tv-b-gone is less harmful though. Activists having their tvs shut off wouldn’t be that much of a bummer.

    1. TV-b-gone isn’t beloved by this Boinger. If someone gets caught playing around with one in a bar where I, and likely a number of other people, have convened to watch soccer or cycling or something, it’s going to go up their frickin’ nose.

    2. “This is part of an increasing trend to designing hardware and software that allows remote parties to override the instructions of the owners and users of devices.” = describes the TV-B-Gone

      Hardly the same at all. TVs were not designed to allow “remote parties to override the instructions of the owners and users of devices.” Instead they were designed to allow remote control by the owner. The fact that non-owner third parties learned to hack into this is a failing of the original purpose of the remote.

      This, on the other hand, is the original device itself (analogous to the TV) being designed to be overridden by non-owners. It would be more equivalent to a TV being deliberately designed to be TV-B-Gone-compatible, so that if a content-provider didn’t like you watching right now, they could turn it off.

  12. Apple has thousands of patents that never get put into production.

    But, sure, let the rage begin


  13. This is great! Apple can ruin iDevices and the patent will prevent other manufacturers from using it on their actually useful and user-friendly devices. Sounds like a Win-Win to me.

    1. Yes,

      Let Apple try to use this on their gadgets and self-select themselves out.

      DRM did wonders for those who put them into their products, right?

  14. This is very close to functions that can be turned on and off remotely that the consumer is not even aware of. In 21st century Amurika the TV watches you. (or computer, netbook, phone, camera, etc)

  15. Hmmm…how long would it take to jailbreak one of these puppies? I like Apple’s hardware, but this would be a dealbreaker for me!!

  16. Depressing, but not surprising. I think that we’ll continue to see innovations that enable companies to essentially rent us goods and services with a reduced capabilities so that we can only extract so much value out of them. Hopefully more open platforms will survive, and jailbreaking will continue. There will also be fun TV-B-Gone-like products that will make this feature even more irritating to these camera users.

    Apple’s 1984 commercial just gets more and more ironic over time.

  17. Patent != Product.

    By holding this patent, others could be prevented from implementing similar schemes.

    1. it’s possible apple would like to block this technology from ever getting into the hands of malicious tasked people for the common good of society, but that doesn’t sound very appleistic?!

      It’s more likely that apple simply wants a piece of the money, whether or not they actually field the product themselves. A technology like this has government funding written all over it.

  18. Are Android users safe? If this technology ever made it to Android, I imagine that you could just build a noncompliant camera app…but I also imagine that Google could do various things to prevent this. (Whether they would is another question entirely; I think they wouldn’t, but nobody’s ever called me a pessimist.)

  19. This is overreaching and downright evil … wake up Apple. This is not even a patent you want to shelve and troll for licensing fees.

  20. Good thing I can’t afford to upgrade from my old camcorder! It’s too dumb to notice IR signals.

  21. This is part of an increasing trend…

    In my view, this is not surprising, and is perhaps inevitable.

    On the most basic level, technology (and we can use that term pretty broadly here), tends to be about control. Really, most technologies are simply about humans exerting more control — over nature (i.e., agriculture, medicine), over the calculus of work (i.e., manufacturing and industrialization), over information (computing technologies), over people (legal systems and the means of enforcing them), etc. etc. Mankind is obsessed by control, and has been for quite a while (perhaps since the dawn or recorded history).

    So it is that surprising that one of the things we try to control is other people?. To me, they seem to go hand in hand.

    It’s popular to say that technology is morally or ethically neutral, and there is of course truth in that. But more subtly, one can’t reasonably expect that technology won’t be used in the same spirit that it was created. (After all, “…guns don’t kill people,” but who in their right mind is surprised when a technology with violence at its core is used in a violent way?).

    In short, human nature what it is, I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too. If you want technologies and gadgets to control the minutia of your life, someone else is going to try to use then to control the minutia or your life. There’s no logical or philosophical reason, for example, that the development of DRM always seems to accompany new ways to transmitting digital content, but there are very humans ones.

    We get our rocks off telling other people what they can and can’t do. I guess that’s one of the reasons politics is so popular….

    1. So it is that surprising that one of the things we try to control is other people?

      Of course not, but it’s curious that the people Apple is trying to provide control to are not its customers.

  22. If this would stop people at concerts from just standing their with their arm in the air instead of just enjoying the moment (and it won’t) I would be for it.

  23. If you’ve been to a decent size concert recently, ignoring potential abuses, it sounds wonderful actually.

    You have to really concentrate to see around everyone making terrible quality videos of the show that they’ll never watch.

    1. Cameras that aren’t in the line of sight tend not to be useful. Unless you’re just looking to record audio, I guess.

  24. Apple products are for the cool kids.

    Not being able to record your fun time = not cool.

    I say this is just one of Apple’s patent portfolio of product ideas that are never intended for production. It’s just an idea someone had that they wanted dibs on, in case it turned out useful — or lucrative — later.

    Droid kidz ftw. :)

    1. It’s true…. I

      Let’s not forget that Apple brought so much of the digital download market to what it is today. Most people can’t afford to fill their ipods with legally downloaded material from the iTunes store…. apple is well aware of this, but by providing an explanation of why people needed so much continuous portable media capacity, most DRM didn’t get out of hand largely thanks to Apple. Apple is not the pirate’s enemy.

      They’re also not so dumb as to shoot themselves in the foot by selling something like this. Ya sure some of the fashion zombies would buy it anyways, but with Android phones nipping at their heels that would only last so long and the end result would be to flush their smartphone market share down the toilet….. they know this too.

  25. I can’t imagine for one second this becoming an actual feature on the iPhone, and I don’t think anyone could who isn’t committed to finding any excuse for outrage at Apple.

    1. Well, it definitely won’t in North America or Europe. I’m less certain about the rest of the world, though.

  26. This could very well change the dynamic of riots like the one in Vancouver last night – either with the cops turning off phones en masse to stop the crowds from encouraging fires & whatnot, or with riot organizers making sure they’re not visible starting things in the first place.

    Ultimately it was the looky-loos who kept things going in the wrong direction, even if the blame for inciting things lies solely with the people who came prepared with gasoline and balaclavas. I can see this sort of thing used on both sides, but I imagine it’s the sort of thing that’ll end up being used by protesters first because their prototyping and production cycle is shorter and more fluid.

  27. Hopefully the “RECORDING DISABLED” message can be changed to this icon:
    ..thus fulfilling the “Ghost In The Shell” TV series envisionment of the future, where a cracker/assassin was able to jam this icon over his face on all the TV cameras aimed at him.

    Certainly this sort of “solution” creates a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for the hardware vendors.

  28. I predict that someone will soon sponsor a bill to make this technology mandatory in all digital cameras, and provide penalties for those who disable it.

    Because in a free market, this is technology that can’t possibly survive. Either it’ll be deployed in secret (like the digital fingerprints left by laser printers), or it’ll be deployed openly and be mandatory.

    I further predict that the legislator who introduces the bill will be a “free market,” “small government” capitalist.

    1. Because in a free market, this is technology that can’t possibly survive.

      I wish I had such an optimistic view. I tend to believe that with marketing and brand control, the product is almost irrelevant to what the market does.

      I think it’s more likely that people will still buy iphones because they are cool (and frankly, nicely designed), and will accept the inconvenience in the same way they’ve accepted itunes for years, agreeing that it sucks, but parroting whatever rationale Steve Jobs provides. Probably something along the lines of “taking pictures at shows is taking money from the pockets of these artists that we care so much about”.

  29. Like the Sony camcorders that would turn themselves off when pointed at a Sony television. That went over swimmingly well with customers.

    My guess, Apple figures the loss of sales would far outweigh any potential money they could get from venue owners, etc. by deploying this and keep it out of their products. But they’ll happily license it to their less market savvy competitors.

  30. I almost never use the camera in my Droid because as a camera, it’s an ergonomic nightmare.

  31. Necessity is the mother of invention, but it works both ways. If they ever put this into production, I imagine there will be all sorts of attachable “monocles” to put over your phone’s camera lens to filter out that annoying IR data. Better start putting in your patent applications now!

  32. For the folks saying “put tape over the IR sensor…”

    I hate to break it to you.

    The camera itself is the IR sensor. Don’t believe me? Aim a remote at your iPhone next time you have it in camera or camcorder mode.

    There is just simply no way you can spin this one, so please, stop trying.

  33. They didn’t “patent” anything. They’ve filed a patent application. It’s a very important distinction.

  34. I don’t believe the concept is using the IR prox sensor. I believe they will take advantage of the fact that cameras are sensitive to IR. Then scan sequences of frames looking for on/off sequences in a pixel cluster, in a serial code pattern.

  35. If a group really wants to thwart folks taking pictures/video of their act, just make a screen with a matrix of IR LEDs, in say, a 2 inch grid, that is draped in front of the stage and drive the thing with various patterns. From several feet away it will by practically invisible. (Or it could be hung in the rear of the stage.)

    They’re becoming popular with RGB LEDs already, just add an IR channel.

    Small intense sources will still get through all but the highest grade IR filters.

    Heck, the patterns you drive it with could be scrolling text of the URL to go to to obtain official concert videos.

  36. Just wait until this technology is common and/or required by law and then anyone who doesn’t want to be recorded can be safe. Think about all the dirty cops and crooked politicians and even good old-fashioned criminals would be using these to to prevent people from catching them.

  37. Children,

    There’s something called film, used with film cameras. Film cameras are as small as your ridiculously-conformist mobile phones and film cameras have better lenses.

    A mobile phone is an over-priced, radiation device for yuppies –designed to invade your privacy in many ways.

    It’s against the law in most states to drive with a mobile phone
    and stupid conversations, petty texts and emails can more than likely wait til later. Learn how to set aside your poseur
    ‘me on the cell time’. We look pathetic and insecure in public when we act all VIP with little fake machines in our palms.

    Stop getting with ‘the program’. Mobile phones are only good for emergencies. Nobody remembers your hammy photos. You should know how to find a damn restaurant w/o ratings too. Fools!

  38. This is a disappointingly breathless article, Cory. Apple, like many other R&D focussed companies, will file an application for anything remotely patentable that their engineers come up with. Most of these never make it into shipping products. Given that there isn’t really a positive for Apple implementing this in their products I can’t see this ever making it off the drawing board.

    1. I’ve always wanted groups like ACLU or Big Brother Watch or some other civil rights organization to patent ideas like this. My thinking is that once you patent it you can prevent others from using this awful technology. And if they try you can sued them for infringement. Sounds weird, but think about the advantages of patenting things you don’t want to be actually implemented. The oil industry does it all the time, with their patents on green technology (you don’t think Exxon really cares about the environment, do you?)

  39. I can’t hardly wait until it’s made mandatory, and then a law is drawn up to prevent tampering or messing with the control. Yep, just can’t wait. Cuz no way this will ever be misused.

  40. “Coming up: we know that zombies aren’t real, but what if they were? Are you prepared to defend your family? Next on the 10:00 news.”

    Late to the discussion but: This is not real. Cory, this kind of scare mongering belongs on FOX.

  41. In the future, only hackers will have freedom. Think about that next time you shit on a hacktivist. They may be the only ones that will save you.

  42. This one’s right up there with that OnStar thing which allows OnStar or whoever has the right equipment to remotely disable the engines of cars so equipped.

    I guess it’s not yet time to ditch my Nikon F or my Marantz professional cassette recorder.

  43. Why do some of you waste so much time working out how to foil the device? Why not just NOT BUY IT.
    Apple would stop being so arrogant if less people brainlessly stopped accepting its every little mad compulsion.

  44. Actually they are not the first phone company to think about doing this. I know from some people worked there, that one very large Korean phone manufacture (cough cough, the biggest one) has had built in remote camera shut off in their phones for years! When an employee enters one of their campuses (in korea) Their phone suddenly has no camera function. The applies to all their phones, from a simple flip phones, up to smart phones. I don’t think it uses IR probably radio, but then who knows. Also apparently they didn’t patent it or think about using it in public like Apple…so does that make them less evil? Or more because they implemented it?…errr.. Anyway I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this on all phones in the near future. As a amateur photographer, I think its awful, but not surprising in the least. The tech is out there, its just a matter of time. So many easy ways to block the blocking tech from working though, it really just disrupts the casual photo, anyone determined to shoot something still will.

    1. that one very large Korean phone manufacture (cough cough, the biggest one) has had built in remote camera shut off in their phones for years! When an employee enters one of their campuses (in korea) Their phone suddenly has no camera function. The applies to all their phones, from a simple flip phones, up to smart phones. I don’t think it uses IR probably radio, but then who knows.

      Thats very interesting. I have spent some time working at a place in Korea which takes security very seriously. One time I accidentally left a camera in my laptop bag. The security people kept it for me while I was in the building. But they never did anything about camera phones. Maybe this is why.

  45. Intellectual Property law will be a chief mechanism for social control in the new world order.

  46. Actually, the main target of this may be government employees and those who visit certain facilities. I frequently travel to locations where no cameras of any type are allowed (and the employees are issued special blackberries where the camera electronics have been shorted by RIM), meaning that all visitors with anything more recent than a mid-90s flip phone usually have to leave their phones/tech in the car or at the security desk. Having a device with a camera that the facility could remotely disable while I’m there would be a huge plus for both the employees and visitors.

  47. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find out the “shut off” code. Use a basic point-and-shoot camera with video capability.

    Step 2: Start leaving cheap little LED emitters EVERYWHERE. Have a complete field day turning off the iPhones of drones too stupid to block the sensor. When even the most mentally challenged Apple fanboi is sticking little bits of tape to his fetish…mission accomplished. When cops start figuring out how to pull this little trick with other recording equipment…another round of sabotage.

  48. Ah the fanboys, what a funny lot.

    You could film Steve Jobs eating babies, all verified by trustable witnesses, and fanboys would still find a reason to deny it all.

    Let me give you a hint: if you don’t want to implement an evil technology just don’t do it. If somebody else patents it it would not be a concern of yours.

    It is called ethics, in case you wanted to know.

  49. This is pure evil, and clearly shows what a crass, money grubbng fascist corporation crapple is. Lets design apps for despots! Escpecially rich despots. Fanboies, kiss my xxx.

  50. a couple of points.
    1. the on-board camera can already see IR signals. just point a IR remote at it and push a button. You will see the light.
    2. The much more elegant way to do this would be through the on-board GPS. If your at a stadium and the gps range is in the “no photo” database [that can be updated constantly] the phone can say no.

    of course doing any of this stuff is just wrong and evil.

  51. Easiest way to thwart this gestapo-tech is to stop giving your money to Apple. Then keep up with other venders to make sure they’re not putting this crap into their products. And yes, Apple is a huge patent troll.

  52. It might not work as well as you think. Most CCDs have IR filters over them to prevent wash-out from strong IR sources such as sunlight and, well, IR remotes.

    LEDs are very efficient in the IR range, that is why IR remotes work so well. You can see a dim little white dot if you aim your TV remote at a digital camera, but that LED is actually flashbulb intensity.

    In an indoor, darkened room such as a movie theater, this might work (not to mention it would superimpose a flickering pattern over the movie if recorded… effective enough right there) … but I don’t think it would work so well outdoors or in bright sunlight unless you could keep the IR emitter aimed directly at the camera at all times.

  53. You can buy an iPud but you can never own it. It’s designed to give you a safe, simple, pr0n-free, authoritarian experience. It controls you at least as much as you control it. It’s been built that way since the very first models and you know it. What else is new?

  54. IMO police should be recorded at all times.

    I dont know if we are seeing a new epidemic of police abuse, or technology has revealed an already existing one, but the solution is not to draw a curtain on it.

  55. I can see in now

    “New from Whelen (or Tomar, Code3, Federal Signal, Carbon Motors, etc.), the OfficIR ProtectIR. Invisible IR beacons built in to our latest light bars prevent unauthorized recordings of law enforcement procedures.”

  56. First, why so much noise? Just don’t buy a stupid camera that others can control, specially big brother Apple. Simple! Done!

    Secondly, coming from Apple, is that a surprise? Maybe this event helps to open the eyes of some of their cult people.

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