Apple Files iPhone Anti-Theft Patent

Apple has filed a patent application for technology that would restrict unauthorized access to a mobile device such as an iPhone in the event of theft or hacking. The question remains how such technology would affect "jailbreaking" the iPhone to run software unauthorized by Apple.

Apple has filed a patent application for technology that would restrict unauthorized users' access to a mobile device such as an iPhone.

Application number 20100207721 can be found on the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office's database, where it was apparently published Aug. 19. It describes a method for detecting unauthorized users, locking down a device and then alerting the owner.

"In some embodiments, an authorized user can be detected by comparing the identity of the current user to the identities of authorized users of the electronic device," reads the application's Summary of the Invention. "For example, a photograph of the current user can be taken, a recording of the current user's voice can be recorded, the heartbeat of the current user can be recorded, or any combination of the above."

If an unauthorized user is detected, the patent application continues, the device can restrict access to both applications and sensitive information, as well as send an alert to the device's owner or law enforcement. That alert could be transmitted via a variety of means, such as voicemail, phone, text message or e-mail.

The patent also suggests that "an activity that can detect an authorized user can be any action that may indicate the electronic device is being tampered with by being, for example, hacked, jailbroken or unlocked." Jailbreaking involves users altering their iPhone to run software not authorized by Apple; although the practice is technically legal-or at least doesn't violate copyright law-the company has been quite vocal in opposing it. In theory, the technology would allow Apple to send a strongly worded message to the jailbreaker, although its ability to actually reset or lock down the device would be restricted under current law.

But should Apple integrate such security into a future edition of its iOS operating-system, the question still remains whether the technology would be disabled when a user "jailbreaks" their iPhone. If so, that might provide additional incentive for users to stay within Apple's walled garden, as opposed to taking their chances with an unlocked device that lacks company support.

Federal regulators ruled July 26 that iPhone owners can legally "jailbreak" their smartphones and use them to run software unauthorized by Apple. That ruling came in response to a 2008 petition by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which asked for three exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act: that noncommercial video creators be allowed to rip clips from DVDs for "fair use remixes," that cell phone owners be able to unlock their devices for use on "cellular networks of their choosing," and that smartphone owners be able to jailbreak their devices to "use applications of their choosing."

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, originally passed in 1998, generally forbids users to "avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure" that controls access to a "work" such as a computer program.

Despite arguments from Apple that jailbreaking would wreck total havoc on a cellular network, the Library of Congress, which oversees the Copyright Office, ruled in favor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's petition.

An Apple spokesperson told Cult of Mac that jailbreaking an iPhone would still result in a voided warranty.

"Apple's goal has always been to insure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone and we know that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience," the blog quoted as that spokesperson's official statement. "As we've said before, the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones as this can violate the warranty and cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably."

Editor's Note: This article corrected the publication date for the Apple patent filing.