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  • 08.23.10

Apple Patent: Bad News for Thieves, Not Jailbreakers

Apple’s serious about not jailbreaking iPhones, and a new patent shows it’s looking into remote-detection and disabling of such activity. Is this legally questionable, or is it actually a clever anti-theft system?

iPhone jailbreak2

The patent was filed in February and revealed late last week, and it’s actually pretty sophisticated: Apple’s intention is protect owners of lost or stolen iPhones from having the sensitive information they contain be exploited by criminal types. As more and more of us use our smartphones for more and more everyday stuff, we jam them full of “credit card information, social security numbers, banking information, home addresses,” and so on, and losing a phone means this data could be exposed and utilized improperly. Hence Apple’s patent idea is designed to protect consumers by disabling a phone and deleting this data.

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But you may remember Apple already allows this with its “find my iPhone” service that also allows a remote wipe of the entire phone. This is true, but the current system is clunky and can be defeated–especially if a thief removes the phone’s SIM card and replaces it with a new one before it’s had time to “call home” to the Find My iPhone service. The system Apple proposes is much cleverer, and tries to detect “unauthorized” users–if it finds one it can instantly wipe the sensitive personal data on the phone, and then may even snap a geotagged photo of the perpetrator and upload the image to a remote security server without alerting the person what’s going on. It’s even designed to detect if a “hacking program” is being run, perhaps by picking up on the fact that the memory usage of the phone has suddenly leaped up from its habitual levels, and may even act to block the program, erase the phone or possibly permanently brick the device.

It all sounds good from a normal iPhone user point of view, supplying the kind of protection that is currently only dreamed about, and negating that horrible sinking feeling about all the red tape you’ll have to wade through when you lose your phone nowadays. Assuming Apple’s system is smart enough not to falsely detect a theft, and then lock you out of your own phone. But some people are worrying that the patent makes specific mention of detecting jailbreaks and acting to bar this activity too. It’s true that a thief may well jailbreak an iPhone, which explains why Apple mentions it in this security context but many users–including some pretty high-profile ones–jailbreak the unit for their own reasons. And some accusing fingers are being leveled against Apple, alleging that its desire to be Big Brother over how you use your iPhone is a terrible thing.

The trick is, Apple would never use this system to detect and bar jailbroken phones. Primarily, it’s because doing so is probably illegal: The right to jailbreak your device has just been confirmed in American courts, and Europe already has strict laws about anti-competitive lock-downs on hardware. Apple’s also acutely aware of its public image, and knows that clamping down on jailbreaks by this route would horribly harm its business. Like many patents, this move is more to protect Apple IP, and to allow it to implement clever systems that are something akin to these ideas in the future.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.

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