Privacy group charges Apple plans to patent "traitorware" and spy on users

Some people may be celebrating the U.S. Copyright Office declaration that it's legal to "jailbreak" iPhones. But Apple is fighting back, and a well-known privacy group warns that a recent Apple 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." The patent application is downright chilling.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has examined Apple's patent application for, in the patent's words, "identifying unauthorized users of an electronic device." The patent application is number 20100207721, and was filed on August 19.

The EFF's blog notes that:

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.

Don't believe the EFF? Just read the patent application. It notes the device would contain:

a microphone operable to record the voice of the current user; and wherein the processor is further operable to: compare the recorded voice with voice prints of authorized user of the electronic device; and determine that the recorded voice does not match the voice print of any authorized user of the electronic device.

It would also contain:

a heartbeat sensor operable to detect the heartbeat of the current user; and wherein the processor is further operable to: compare the detected heartbeat with heart signatures of each authorized user of the electronic device; and determine that detected the heartbeat does not match the heart signature of any authorized user of the electronic device.

The EFF blog also notes that the patent would allow Apple "to secretly collect, store and potentially use sensitive biometric information about you." And it warns that Apple could then take actions against you based on the information it finds, which is why it calls it "traitorware." According to the EFF, here are the types of information Apple plans to collect, and the way it plans to collect them:

* 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.

The blog notes, "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." The blog concludes:

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. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation isn't composed of bomb-throwing anarchists; they are a well-respected privacy organization that has for years functioned as a watchdog to defend people's electronic privacy rights. So what they write isn't hyperbole.

They're exactly right in what they say about Apple and this patent. Apple should withdraw it, and if the company doesn't, the patent office shouldn't grant it.

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