Apple's Remote-Kill Patent: New Cost Of Doing Business Abroad?

A new Apple patent, to remotely disable functions on wireless devices based on locations or events, rightly raises the hackles of those who fear digital encroachments on personal freedoms.

Apple just made a patent filing that has raised the hackles of those who fear digital encroachments to personal freedom. You can expect to see a lot more of these sorts of patents, and not just from Apple.

So many of the technologies in question are consumer technologies, specifically mobile devices. It's not just enterprise-level, back-room stuff that's being constructed with an eye toward mollifying authorities. It's now the phone in your pocket.

First, here are some notes about the patent itself. It's a patent on methods to enforce policies remotely on a wireless device based on locations or events. For example, on entering a movie theater or school test lab, a person's phone could be disabled in certain ways to prevent picture taking or Internet usage.

Clearly, it has legitimate uses. It also takes little effort to imagine the ways such power can be abused. A ZDNet article on the patent puts it this way: "Isn't it a shame you can't take a photo of the police officer beating a man in the street because your oppressive government remotely disabled your smartphone camera?"

In a world like this, creating tech with built-in lockdowns is inevitable. In fact, having such features might well become the price of offering such technology in certain places at all.

Most of us by now ought to be familiar with the social costs of doing business in any number of other places where the security of the state far outweighs liberty, regimes like China, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. If you want to do business there, you have to do it their way--and that often means allowing the powers-that-be to do things with your tech and maybe even your employees that you wouldn't stomach if it happened on home soil.

Faced with such a Hobson's choice, many companies cave. The cost of not doing business in, say, China is too bitter a pill for most big companies to choke down. They know they can pull out, but not painlessly. They lose revenue, and they have that much less presence in Asia, an indispensable market these days.

In China's case, it's made worse not just by the authoritarianism of the regime but by the way outside companies constantly find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. For example, the way Google loses out time and again to local search engine Baidu and Internet portal king Alibaba, which is now positing its own Aliyun phone OS as domestic competition for Android.

One way for a company to ameliorate is to frame resistance to oppressive measures as being a pro-business stance, rather than pro-freedom. When the government of India complained the BlackBerry messaging infrastructure was "too secure," Research In Motion had to figure out a solution that provided some degree of compliance while also protecting encrypted enterprise-level message traffic. India has a huge number of BlackBerry customers, so there was a lot to lose on both the customers' and the corporate side. RIM did, however, cave to blocking access to porn in Indonesia, presumably because that didn't affect its bottom line nearly as much.

As much as I hate to admit it, that might well be what finally brings a greater degree of attention to all of this, because it's human nature to ignore a problem until it's our problem. If a variety of router hardware with a four-figure price tag has a backdoor built into it that allows packet-level wiretapping, most people yawn. But if their own phones have something like that, heads blow clean off.

That said, I don't think you could introduce a technology like this in the United States without a massive public backlash. All it would take is one frustrated attempt to photograph an incident of police brutality or other abuse of power in a public place to have its legality disputed in court. Ditto the whole question of whether the movie theater you're in has the right to block cell signals at the possible cost of personal safety.

That's exactly the kind of messy, angry, public debate this issue deserves, because sitting and hoping really hard it'll fix itself does not work. I have a lot of Silicon Valley friends who console themselves with some variation on the nice little lie that the more you give a society things like access to the Internet and iPhones and whatnot, the more it will demand and get the same liberties as the rest of us. That society might demand liberties, but that doesn't mean it will get them, because it might well be in the thrall of people just as technologically savvy as it is, and far more determined to protect their power with that technology.

We operate under the assumption that any society that embraces technological development, especially technologies of connectivity, will automatically become a freer and more open society. That can happen, but that doesn't mean it always does. Sometimes it just provides that many more ways for a population to freely participate in its own oppression.

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