Steve Jobs Is Watching You: Apple Seeking to Patent Spyware

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Deeplinks Blog / EFF

Steve Jobs Is Watching You: Apple Seeking to Patent Spyware

by
Julie Samuels

It looks like Apple, Inc., is exploring a new business opportunity: spyware and what we're calling "traitorware." While users were celebrating the new jailbreaking and unlocking exemptions, Apple was quietly preparing to apply for a patent on technology that, among other things, would allow Apple to identify and punish users who take advantage of those exemptions or otherwise tinker with their devices. This patent application does nothing short of providing a roadmap for how Apple can — and presumably will — spy on its customers and control the way its customers use Apple products. As Sony-BMG learned, spying on your customers is bad for business. And the kind of spying enabled here is especially creepy — it's not just spyware, it's "traitorware," since it is designed to allow Apple to retaliate against you if you do something Apple doesn't like.

Essentially, Apple's patent provides for a device to investigate a user's identity, ostensibly to determine if and when that user is "unauthorized," or, in other words, stolen. More specifically, the technology would allow Apple to record the voice of the device's user, take a photo of the device's user's current location or even detect and record the heartbeat of the device's user. Once an unauthorized user is identified, Apple could wipe the device and remotely store the user's "sensitive data." Apple's patent application suggests it may use the technology not just to limit "unauthorized" uses of its phones but also shut down the phone if and when it has been stolen.

However, Apple's new technology would do much more. This patented device enables Apple to secretly collect, store and potentially use sensitive biometric information about you. This is dangerous in two ways: First, it is far more than what is needed just to protect you against a lost or stolen phone. It's extremely privacy-invasive and it puts you at great risk if Apple's data on you are compromised. But it's not only the biometric data that are a concern. Second, Apple's technology includes various types of usage monitoring — also very privacy-invasive. This patented process could be used to retaliate against you if you jailbreak or tinker with your device in ways that Apple views as "unauthorized" even if it is perfectly legal under copyright law.

Here's a sample of the kinds of information Apple plans to collect:

  • The system can take a picture of the user's face, "without a flash, any noise, or any indication that a picture is being taken to prevent the current user from knowing he is being photographed";
  • The system can record the user's voice, whether or not a phone call is even being made;
  • The system can determine the user's unique individual heartbeat "signature";
  • To determine if the device has been hacked, the device can watch for "a sudden increase in memory usage of the electronic device";
  • The user's "Internet activity can be monitored or any communication packets that are served to the electronic device can be recorded"; and
  • The device can take a photograph of the surrounding location to determine where it is being used.

In other words, Apple will know who you are, where you are, and what you are doing and saying and even how fast your heart is beating. In some embodiments of Apple's "invention," this information "can be gathered every time the electronic device is turned on, unlocked, or used." When an "unauthorized use" is detected, Apple can contact a "responsible party." A "responsible party" may be the device's owner, it may also be "proper authorities or the police."

Apple does not explain what it will do with all of this collected information on its users, how long it will maintain this information, how it will use this information, or if it will share this information with other third parties. We know based on long experience that if Apple collects this information, law enforcement will come for it, and may even order Apple to turn it on for reasons other than simply returning a lost phone to its owner.

This patent is downright creepy and invasive — certainly far more than would be needed to respond to the possible loss of a phone. Spyware, and its new cousin traitorware, will hurt customers and companies alike — Apple should shelve this idea before it backfires on both it and its customers.

Julie Samuels, EFF

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