Another charging opportunity?

A knife blade cutting the cable of a generic charger/adaptor

Last month, an Apple patent application was published describing a method of “Protecting electronic devices from extended unauthorized use” – effectively a ‘charging rights management’ system.

New Scientist and OhGizmo have stories explaining the system; while the stated intention is to make stolen devices less useful/valuable (by preventing a thief charging them with unauthorised chargers), readers’ comments on both stories are as cynical as one would expect: depending on how the system is implemented, it could also prevent the owner of a device from buying a non-Apple-authorised replacement (or spare) charger, or from borrowing a friend’s charger, and in this sense it could simply be another way of creating a proprietary lock-in, another way to ‘charge’ the customer, as it were.

It also looks as though it would play havoc with clever homebrew charging systems such as Limor Fried‘s Minty Boost (incidentally the subject of a recent airline security débâcle) and similar commercial alternatives such as Mayhem‘s Anycharge, although these are already defeated by a few devices which require special drivers to allow charging.

Reading Apple’s patent application, what is claimed is fairly broad with regard to the criteria for deciding whether or not re-charging should be allowed – in addition to charger-identification-based methods (i.e. the device queries the charger for a unique ID, or the charger provides it, perhaps modulated with the charging waveform) there are methods involving authentication based on a code provided to the original purchaser (when you plug in a charger the device has never ‘seen’ before, it asks you for a security code to prove that you are a legitimate user), remote disabling via connection to a server, or even geographically-based disabling (using GPS: if the device goes outside of a certain area, the charging function will be disabled).

All in all, this seems an odd patent. Apple’s (patent attorneys’) rather hyperbolic statement (Description, 0018) that:

These devices (e.g., portable electronic devices, mechanical toys) are generally valuable and/or may contain valuable data. Unfortunately, theft of more popular electronic devices such as the Apple iPod music-player has become a serious problem. In a few reported cases, owners of the Apple iPod themselves have been seriously injured or even murdered.

…is no doubt true to some extent, but if the desire is really to make a stolen iPod worthless, then I would have expected Apple to lock each device in total to a single user – not even allowing it to be powered up without authentication. Just applying the authentication to the charging method seems rather arbitrary. (It’s also interesting to see the description of “valuable data”: surely in the case that Apple is aware that a device has been stolen, it could provide the legitimate owner of the device with all his or her iTunes music again, since the marginal copying cost is zero. And if the stolen device no longer functions, the RIAA need not panic about ‘unauthorised’ copies existing! But I doubt that’s even entered into any of the thinking around this.)

Whether or not the motives of discouraging theft are honourable or worthwhile, there is the potential for this sort of measure to cause signficant inconvenience and frustration for users (and second-hand buyers, for example – if the device doesn’t come with the original charger or the authentication code) along with incurring extra costs, for little real ‘theft deterrent’ benefit. How long before the ‘security’ system is cracked? A couple of months after the device is released? At that point it will be worth stealing new iPods again.

(Many thanks to Michael O’Donnell of PDD for letting me know about this!)

Previously on the blog: Friend or foe? Battery authentication ICs

UPDATE: Freedom to Tinker has now picked up this story too, with some interesting commentary.

13 Comments

  1. Pingback: University Update - Apple iPod - Another charging opportunity?

  2. Pingback: University Update - DRM - Another charging opportunity?

  3. Ian Kemmish

    Well, if a $50 counterfeit replacement battery can catch fire and take out a entire $2000 laptop, then I’m all for it….

  4. Dan

    Did you read the article? The system is not about replacement batteries: it is about a system that prevents the device being charged if the device appears to have been stolen. Completely different.

  5. Yup, the charger as private key, providing the sole means of obtaining administrative (as opposed to user) access (and also the sole means of recharging).

    It’s a reasonable idea, but there’s no reason why Apple should be in control of the key – or know what it is. Just bung a 5 digit user selectable PIN number on the underside of the charger, that can be changed at any time (the charger can remember the last known key, and amend it upon reconnection). Moreover, Apple should make this an open standard.

    If the charger was lost, the unit would have to be returned.

  6. Sorry, I meant if the charger+key was lost, such that the key was also forgotten and so couldn’t be set into an additional/replacement charger…

  7. Pingback: Breaking News ! » Blog Archive » Apple patents DRM for electricity

  8. Pingback: Media On the GO ! » Blog Archive » Apple patents DRM for electricity

  9. Michael O'Donnell

    I’m not surprised by this, nor am I angered.
    For many years car stereo manufacturers have been implementing a similair system (although I believe this was genuinely driven by anti theft) The 4 digit code system was intrdoced in the mid to late 80’s and was very successfull beacuse the code could only be regenerated by visiting the vehicle dealer and supplying a copy of the registration document (and a small fee, administration – obviously!)
    These were replaced with the removable fascias. The face is coded to the stereo, no other face can operate the stereo. While this is true, blank faces can be’obtained’ and re-programmed to match the code of any stereo. It’s also not uncommon for theives to keep an eye out for fascias hanging out of peoples pockets in public areas like pubs/clubs, stealing that first, along with the car keys and the stereo.
    The point I’m making is that in most cases preventative design is a reaction to opertunistic design (or behaviour) and is unlikely to stop it, merely curb it until a new method is perfected.
    I suspect that if Apple pursue this charging option, then, the same companies that are supplying the low cost chargers will be suppling an inline ‘charging emulator’ I can think of a number of ways this could be resolvedand I’m sure there are many more!

  10. Dan

    Cheers Michael, I think you’re right that “an inline charging emulator” would come on the market fairly quickly if this system were implemented in a way which made it worthwhile.

    And the buyers would probably be evenly split between genuine users and thieves, or people who’d bought the iPods or whatever at second-hand markets or car boot sales.

    Equally, if the ‘security’ is entirely in the software, someone will crack it within a few months, and the crack will be available online for anyone (genuine user, thief, whatever). The car stereo code comparison is very apt.

    As Crosbie says, a user-programmable charger+key would allow people the choice to do what they want (hence probably unlikely that Apple would do this), but then you might as well just have a user-programmable password on the device and forget the whole “charger-as-security-method” thing.

  11. Terran Rei

    This theft protection proposal appears to be another attempt by Apple to gain greater control over the iPod accessories industry. It really is an attempt to prevent non-Apple authorized companies from supporting the needs of iPod owners. For example, there are hundreds of speaker dock products on the market that allow you to listen to your iPod without headphones. Many of these devices also charge the iPod while docked. This proposal would make those devices obsolete. There are also hundreds of portable charging devices on the market that provide energy for your iPod on the go. Again, Apple wants to lock them out of the loop as well. You see, what Apple really wants to do is control the market for iPod accessories. The Ipod accessory market is now a billion $ industry and Apple wants a bigger share of the pie. So their proposal is an attempt to eliminate free market competition under the guise of protecting consumers. Do you really want to sell your freedom of choice for a security proposal that is not likely to have much impact on preventing theft in the digital age. Unfortunately, this is just another attempt by Apple to manipulate and fleece its flock.

Comments are closed.