A New Threat to Cell Phone Videos?

17:29 minutes

Adele, Beyonce, and Benedict Cumberbatch are among the scores of artists who have begged fans not to take video of their live performances in recent years—a habit even fans can find frustrating, when they’re stuck behind a sea of upheld phones, iPads, and other devices. One possible solution? Apple recently received a patent for technology that would use infrared signals to temporarily disable a phone camera from recording during a concert or other show.

A woman taking a video with her phone, from Shutterstock
A woman taking a video with her phone, from Shutterstock

Who favors this idea probably depends on whether they’re an artist trying to make a living, or a fan who wants a few good Instagrams of their favorite band. Apple hasn’t actually announced plans to turn this patented idea into a commercialized product, but in a time when cell phone cameras are capturing much more than concerts—such as recent shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas—liberty advocates have voiced concern that this technology could also be abused by governments, or others.

NASA computer scientist Mark Micire examines the science of how Apple’s new technology could actually command our phone from afar. In fact, he says, it’s much like how TV remotes have worked for decades—the camera is what makes it new.

Meanwhile, technology law expert Margot Kaminski says that even if Apple starts allowing our cameras to be remotely shut down, the ability would be limited—at least in the U.S.—by many laws that protect our right to record our surroundings.


*This text was updated on July 8, 2016, to reflect that fact that video also captured aspects of the recent shootings in Dallas, Texas.

Segment Guests

Margot Kaminski

Margot Kaminski is an assistant professor in the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Mark Micire

Mark Micire is a research scientist in computer science at NASA. He’s a former program manager for DARPA, and is based at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It is the summer concert season, but are you tired of going to these concerts and confronting a sea of iPhones and iPads held aloft above people’s heads? Artists certainly are tired of this. Beyonce, Adele, and others in recent years have pleaded with their fans to stop recording the performances.

Well, Apple has a new patent for technology that would allow concert venues to disable phone cameras if they don’t want you recording. The patent describes using infrared signals that, when beamed at the sensor in your camera, would instruct the phone to not record. This has had civil liberties advocates worried when the news broke last week. What if police use the same technology, for example?

Just this week, cell phone video captured the killings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and last night in Dallas. What if this new technology could have shut down those camera phones? Where do our rights intersect with our personal devices?

Here to talk about the science of how this kind of technology could work, plus what the law has to say about our smartphones, are my guests. Margot Kaminski is Assistant Professor of Law at Ohio State University, focusing on technology and the law. Dr. Mark Micire is a computer research scientist for NASA, out of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Thank you for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Mark, is this new space age tech and something brand new, space age technology?

DR. MARK MICIRE: Not really, and actually it’s a fun reinvention, I think, of a technique that’s been around for quite some time. Effectively, the patent talks about, like you said, how to use a camera and an infrared light source for communication. That’s something that we’ve been doing pretty much since the early 80s. Every TV remote control you’ve used since 1980 probably used a technology similar to this.

IRA FLATOW: So this is just taking what we know and making it do something else?

DR. MARK MICIRE: Right. And in this case, it’s a little bit of a backward situation where you can imagine the stage, or the movie screen, or that picture frame telling the smartphone things like, don’t record this movie. Or this is a Ming vase in a museum, and it can provide that information to the smartphone. And then the software can provide an action where it doesn’t allow you to record or may watermark that picture in a way that assigns copyright or other things.

IRA FLATOW: So would this technology work with our existing phones, or would Apple have to add this feature to new products?

DR. MARK MICIRE: That’s kind of the beauty of this is your– the smartphones that we use today, people don’t realize that the cameras actually see IR in a way that our eyes can’t. So it’s a really interesting way of hiding a signal that then you can pass to the smartphone.

IRA FLATOW: Well, then spy versus spy, could I put something on my phone that would block the infrared signal?

DR. MARK MICIRE: So it is very easy to pick up IR filters that are commonly used in photography and telescopes. You can pick up an IR filter for about $5.00 that would be able to filter wavelengths at about 650 nanometers. They actually do address this in the patent and talk about being able to use wavelengths that are not quite as common in the photography world.

But I can’t imagine a cottage industry springing up very quickly where you have an iPhone protector that has a filter at the right frequency, such that you could just filter those signals as they’re trying to get to the camera. And at that point, your phone wouldn’t be able to see any of those signals, and so effectively, you could disable and make this patent obsolete very quickly, just with a clever filter on the lens.

IRA FLATOW: But on the other hand, you say there are useful uses for it. For example, if you’re in a museum and you want to learn about the exhibits, or receive advertising you’d like, it would be projected right at you.

DR. MARK MICIRE: Yeah. So today, we see a lot of QR codes and bar codes being used to identify things. I imagine the case that if you were in a museum and you saw a sticker with a weird kind of digital picture on it, that that could kind of detract from your experience of enjoying the art. In this case, because the signal’s invisible, it actually doesn’t interfere visually with the artwork at all.

And what’s kind of interesting about it is because it’s digital communications, then you could also pass things like, this is the Mona Lisa. It was painted in the early 1500s by Da Vinci. And that could be passed in the signal to the phone, and that wouldn’t require an internet connection or anything else to pass that data in a way that QR codes and other things need that internet connection to pull that information forward.

IRA FLATOW: Margot Kaminski, if Apple were to go ahead and start licensing this technology for concert venues, would it violate property rights of any kind? It’s my phone, isn’t it? I should decide if it’s recording or not.

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Well, Ira, it’s a common misperception by individuals that they actually own their phone or own the software that’s on their phones. It turns out that most of your relationship with your technology is not ownership but, in fact, a licensing agreement, which means that most of the companies that create the software that’s on your phones, such as the software Apple is considering using in this case, can usually update the software without your permission because of the licensing agreement that you’ve clicked through.

IRA FLATOW: And do you see any legal issues here, or any rights issues, privacy issues here?

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Oh, there are plenty of legal issues. I don’t even know where to start. So the first issue is that, obviously, there are significant civil liberties implications to preventing people from recording things. We have a number of courts around the country that have recognized under the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, that there is some sort of right to record. And it’s not really clear what that right entails.

But for example, if you’re a citizen and you use your cell phone to record the activities of the police– particularly involved in police activities or illicit police activities– a number of courts around the country have recognized that the First Amendment protects that activity. So if you envision a police department using this kind of technology, the First Amendment implications are pretty clear.

When you get on to private property or start talking about private concert venues, then the conversation becomes much more tricky because that’s not the state preventing you from recording something. That somebody who owns the private property that you’re on.

IRA FLATOW: So how so how feasible, Mark, do you think this is?

DR. MARK MICIRE: I think it’s feasible in certain situations. So if you’re in, let’s say, an enclosed environment where you don’t have direct sunlight and lighting is very well-controlled, there’s already examples of technology like this being used in concert venues for things like synchronizing lights on bracelets and other things that people use during a concert.

Where this breaks down and where the difficulty will be for this technology being implemented is if it’s an outdoor venue during the day. It turns out that our sun emits a huge amount of IR light, and so you effectively have our sun jamming this signal. And so it would be very difficult for the phone to detect that signal. It would be like you and I trying to do Morse code with flashlights, let’s say, across a parking lot. It’s going to be very difficult for me to see the light coming out of your flashlight because the sun is shining so brightly, and the ambient light is so high.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones. We welcome your phone calls. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Mystic, Connecticut and Eric. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

ERIC (ON PHONE): Hey, Ira. I’m glad to talk to you. I saw you at Maker Faire down in New York a while ago. I retired from [AUDIO OUT] department for a major pharmaceutical company, and the fact that somebody got a patent for the technology really doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a problem for somebody to use it, unless Apple wants to sue somebody for using it. So the fact that technology exists, well, we–

IRA FLATOW: We lost him. I think he had a bad cell phone connection. Margot, Mark, anything to that?

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Sure. I completely agree. Patents get issued all the time for things that don’t get made. This is actually one of the major problems in our patent system, because you end up with potential blocking patents that then prevent new inventions from going forward.

But the fact that it’s sort of signaling out there as a type of technology that can be used, I think, is important, and it’s spurring important conversations around whether such technology should be used. And honestly, the type of participation people feel they’re entitled to have when they go to things like private concerts.

IRA FLATOW: You said there was a raft– not your exact word– of legal problems. Where do I begin? Give me a few more that would worry you.

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Sure. So one of the more interesting ones actually is derivative of a 1970s case involving a human cannon performance at the Ohio State Fair. So there you had a TV station that went to the Ohio Fair and filmed the entirety of guy’s act where he shot himself out of a cannon. And this went up to the Supreme Court on a First Amendment challenge by the news media saying, we have a right to film and broadcast matters of public concern. And the canon performer, probably unsurprisingly, said, well, this isn’t just a matter of public concern. This is my livelihood. And the Supreme Court said in that case, when we’re looking at these two things, yes, the livelihood of the human cannon performer outweighs any speech interests on the part of the media.

So you think about this issue, this is not just a matter of asserting your rights to record the police. It’s also a matter of trying to decide what do we value more? Do we value civil liberties? Or do we value the kind of property that potentially provides incentives for performers to create live concerts?

IRA FLATOW: So has that been settled, or it’s still open to interpretation?

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Well, the things that potentially make that case limited are one, the entire act was filmed rather than small portions of the act. And two, in that case, they didn’t actually block the news media from filming it, and the court noted this. They said, the real remedy here is that the human cannon performer is going to get some money out of the money that the news media made.

When we’re talking about this technology, we’re talking about entirely blocking the videotaping of something in a private venue. And again, this might not be a First Amendment issue, because if a private venue imposes restrictions on you, that’s largely– it’s not an action by the state, but it still has speech implications. So if you block everybody from filming everything in a concert venue, there’s a possibility that bad acts don’t get recorded that have nothing whatsoever to do with the concert performance.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Matt in San Francisco. Hi, Matt. Welcome to Science Friday.

MATT: Hey there. Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

MATT: So it’s a tricky subject, because I realize civil liberty needs and all that, but I also am a performer and play in concert-type venues. I don’t like to see cellphones or iPads lifted up. And I feel like we, as performers, also have rights to not have our performance reduced through a phone, and the music reduced through the speakers or the microphones of a phone, and then going through YouTube and all the other outlets that people put them on. It really reduces the experience to me. So I also favor the artists who want to have an intimate experience with their attendees and not have technology get into the way of that.

IRA FLATOW: Good point. Thanks for calling. Margot, Mark?

DR. MARK MICIRE: Well, from my standpoint, from a purely technological standpoint, it’s one of those things where I think, frankly, for at least the way the patent is framed, that this is so easily disabled that I actually am curious. Given the time that has passed since the original patent was filed, we have much better ways of doing this with Bluetooth, and RFID, and other things now that I would actually, from just a purely implementation standpoint, I’d be curious to see how well this would prevent folks from recording a live performance if they wanted to and could get, for instance, the right filter or something else for their smartphone.

IRA FLATOW: Just as a matter of question, you being an IT expert guy, is it possible that malicious people could hack our phone by using infrared information?

DR. MARK MICIRE: Well, any input to a digital system can be used as a method for misuse, so this would be no different than that. And so this really does fall into the same class of devices or the same class of threats as you would have with a lot of the more traditional radio or RF-based communications you would have with your phone.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking about a new technology Apple is patenting for its iPhone to block recordings. Margot, you mentioned the human cannonball guy and his right to do his performance. Is our caller who is the performer actually saying sort of the same thing?

MARGOT KAMINSKI: Yes, I think he’s having the exact sort of argument that the human cannonball performer made, which is this idea that it’s my art. And I need the incentive to be able to have a livelihood that enables me to perform my art. I also noted in our questioner’s question or comment that there’s also a sense by performers that they lose control over what the actual output is, and that meaningfully affects them as artists.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that concert goers do feel as though they’re participating in the concert in a meaningful way. And largely, when somebody goes to a concert, a huge amount of the experience is the social experience that they convey back to friends and family. So another reason why I’m not too concerned about this technology getting over adopted is that I believe it would provoke a huge backlash by concert goers who really enjoy experiencing things not just live at a concert but also online in social media, communicating the kind of person they are to their family and their friends.

IRA FLATOW: You’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you would implement it, basically is what you’re saying.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Madison, Connecticut and Valerie. Hi, Valerie.

VALERIE: Hi, Ira. I’ve always loved your show.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

VALERIE: Thank you for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

VALERIE: I’m worried about a public safety aspect of this. One speaker previously alluded to it but not completely. I’m thinking about the tragedy in Paris and Orlando. And I’m thinking about how venues like that might want to use this technology to shut off our phones and how useful it was for the people who were trapped inside to use their phones to reach safety people, first responders, and their loved ones. And I’ll take the answer off the air, but I see that as a potential big conflict with this.

IRA FLATOW: You mean because there were concerts going on and had this been used, could the phones have been disabled is what you’re saying. Interesting.

VALERIE: Exactly. So could people have dialed out to 911, et cetera, as they did during those two events?

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me ask Mark Micire. Mark, what do you think?

DR. MARK MICIRE: Yeah, so especially when you think back to the Boston Marathon bombings, one of the great resources that law enforcement had after that was all of the cameras that were available to capture, basically, a mosaic of the timeline of that event. If, for instance, that event was canvassed with a device like this that was disabling the ability for cameras to take pictures, then you would lose the ability for that evidence to be captured at a time. And so to what the caller was referring there, if you had pictures that were being taken in the venue while the concert was going on, that may actually help you post-disaster in recreating what it was that actually happened.

IRA FLATOW: And last question for you, Mark. For people who are worried about the interference with their civil liberties or privacy, are there other technologies that we should be paying more closer attention to than this?

DR. MARK MICIRE: Yeah, when you think about threats and one of the ways that you evaluate those types of threats is what is the ease of connecting to those systems? What is the range and the bandwidth for which I can connect to those systems?

This kind of sits at the low end of that spectrum. Your radio technologies, all these phones now have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, RFIDs, cell phone communications. There are much richer surfaces that you could look at attacking. There’s a platform in this where you have to be within proximity of the camera, and you have to be able to generate this very specific type of light source to make that happen.

And so it seems, at least to me, that it’s less of a threat than some of the radio technologies that are built in to these phones.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Mark Micire, computer scientist at NASA. Dr. Margot Kaminski, Assistant Professor of Law at Ohio State University. Thank you for joining us, and have a good weekend.

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