All posts filed under “Signal blocking

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.

Smile, you’re on Countermanded Camera

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

We’ve looked before at a number of technologies and products aimed at ‘preventing’ photography and image recording in some way, from censoring photographs of ‘copyrighted content’ and banknotes, to Georgia Tech’s CCD-flooding system.

Usually these systems are about locking out the public, or removing freedoms in some way (a lot of organisations seem to fear photography), but a few ‘fightback’ devices have been produced, aiming to empower the individual against others (e.g. Hewlett-Packard’s ‘paparazzi-proof’ camera) or against authority (e.g. the Backflash system intended to render a car number plate unreadable when photographed by a speed camera). The field of sousveillance – lots of interesting articles by Régine Debatty here – is also a ‘fightback’ in a parallel vein.

Taking the fightback idea further, into the realms of everyware, Miquel Mora’s IDentity Protection System, shown last month at the RCA’s Great Exhibition (many thanks to Katrin Svabo Bech for the tip-off), aims to offer the individual a way to control how his or her image is recorded – again, Régine from We Make Money Not Art:

With IDPS (IDentity Protection System), interaction designer Miquel Mora is proposing a new way to protect our visual identity from the invasion of ubiquitous surveillance cameras. He had a heap of green stickers that could stick to your jacket. Or anywhere else. The sticker blurred your image on the video screen.

“With the IDPS project I wanted to sparkle [sic.] debate about all the issues related to identity privacy,” explains Miquel. “Make people think about how our society has become a complete surveillance machine. Our identities have already been stored as data in many servers ready to be tracked. And our self image is our last resort. So we really need tools to protect our privacy. We need tools that can allow us to hide or reveal our visual image. We must have the control over it.”

“For example in one scenario a girl is wearing a tooth jewellery with IDPS technology embedded. So when she smiles she reveals it and it triggers the camera to protect her. With IDPS users can always feel comfortable, knowing that with a simple gesture like smiling, they are in control. The IDPS technology could be embedded in all kind of items, from simple badges to clothes or jewellery. For the working prototype I’m using Processing to track the stickers and pixelate the image around when it founds one.”

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

While the use of stickers or similar tags (why not RFID?) which can be embedded in items such as jewellery is a very neat idea aesthetically, I am not sure what economic/legal incentive would drive CCTV operators or manufacturers to include something such as IDPS in their systems and respect the wishes of users. CCTV operators generally do not want anyone to be able to exclude him or herself from being monitored and recorded, whether that’s by wearing a hoodie or a smart black hat with maroon ribbon. Or indeed a veil of some kind.

Something which actively fought back against unwanted CCTV or other surveillance intrusion, such as reversing the Georgia Tech system in some way (e.g. detecting the CCD of a digital security camera, and sending a laser to blind it temporarily, or perhaps some kind of UV strobe) would perhaps be more likely to ‘succeed’, although I’m not sure how legal it would be. Still, with RCA-quality interaction designers homing in on these kinds of issues, I think we’re going to see some very interesting concepts and solutions in the years ahead…

‘Researchers develop prototype system to thwart unwanted video and still photography’

A boot stamping on a camera... forever. Yes, I know this is an SLR. But I was using the digital camera to take the photo!

Via Boing Boing, ‘Researchers develop prototype system to thwart unwanted video and still photography’, news from Georgia Tech of a system that scans and finds the CCDs of digital imaging equipment and shines bright light (or a laser) into them in order to flood them with light and prevent usable images being recorded.

“Commercial versions of the technology could be used to stymie unwanted use of video or still cameras. A Georgia Tech camera-neutralizing prototype could soon be used to stop movie piracy and other forms of unwanted digital-camera photography…

The prototype device, produced by a team in the Interactive and Intelligent Computing division of the Georgia Tech College of Computing (COC), uses off-the-shelf equipment — camera-mounted sensors, lighting equipment, a projector and a computer — to scan for, find and neutralize digital cameras. The system works by looking for the reflectivity and shape of the image-producing sensors used in digital cameras…

…the small-area product could prevent espionage photography in government buildings, industrial settings or trade shows. It could also be used in business settings — for instance, to stop amateur photography where shopping-mall-Santa pictures are being taken
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