Can Apple’s New Infrared Patent Really Disable Your iPhone?

By Kevin A. Rieffel
July 6, 2016

apple-magnifying-glassOn Tuesday, June 28, Apple was granted a new patent, U.S. Patent No. 9,380,225, entitled “Systems and methods for receiving infrared data with a camera designed to detect images based on visible light.” The patent essentially discloses a method for a smartphone’s camera to receive data over infrared waves—data that could alter functionality of the phone. Since the grant of the patent there has been a viral outpouring of articles on using this technology to disable photography and video capture, particularly at live concerts and theater events. While this apparently invasive tech may be something to keep an eye on, it’s important to consider if this can be implemented tomorrow, in a future iPhone, or in an Apple device further down the road. How soon should we start to worry?

For instance, the Washington Post said that musical artist “Alicia Keys has her fans lock their smartphones in a gray, rubbery pouch for the duration of her shows” but that thanks to the new patent, “these measures may soon be unnecessary.” CBS News questioned, “What if the technology was leveraged to block photo and video at a political protest or another sensitive event, making recording of these events impossible?” CBS pointed to the recent sit-in by House Democrats as an event that might not have been broadcast but for smartphones, saying, “Such [live streaming] wouldn’t be possible if the newly-patented technology was in place” to enforce the House’s rules prohibiting recording by cell phone.

The New York Daily News did not disappoint with their strong reaction and suggested that “Apple’s proposed disabling function could also be useful to police, as [the] battle for the right to record officers continues raging on.” Progressive news site CommonDreams dubbed the patent the “iCensor” and a “Kill Switch” for iPhone cameras. The A.V. Club simply called the patent “super evil.” Even the popular rumor-debunking site, Snopes, issued a post to clarify that “Ordinary cameras (and portable cameras not manufactured or licensed by Apple) would not be affected by this particular blocking technology.” Perhaps this technology truly is an over-reach, but is now the time to panic? Maybe.

The Patented Technology

The truth is that Apple has specifically claimed in the patent a method/system that could disable smartphone functions (i.e., send “infrared data [that] comprises a disable command to render a function of an electronic device temporarily inoperable”). The good news is that no one can use this precise method of image capture without paying Apple a presumably large sum of money.

The patent specifically discloses a capable camera:

Camera 107 can include any suitable device for detecting images based on visible light. For example, camera 107 can detect single pictures or video frames based on visible light. Camera 107 can also detect infrared signals with encoded data. For example, camera 107 can detect images that include infrared signals. In some embodiments, camera 107 may include a filter for blocking light of particular wavelengths or ranges of wavelengths. For example, camera 107 can include a filter that blocks infrared light near the edge of the visible light spectrum (e.g., near 700 nm) but not infrared light with a substantially longer wavelengths (e.g., near 850 nm or 950 nm).Camera 107 can include any suitable type of sensor for detecting visible and infrared light in an environment. In some embodiments, camera 107 can include a lens and one or more sensors that generate electrical signals. The sensors of camera 107 can be provided on a charge-coupled device (CCD) integrated circuit, for example. (col. 4, ll. 30 – 46).

As a quick physics refresher-lesson, infrared is the area of the electromagnetic spectrum that is a longer wavelength than red and is invisible to the human eye. Infrared, like the signals sent by your TV remote control, is directional and needs to be aimed. A writer at Tech Insider noted the direct line of sight nature of infrared “is perfect for the application described in Apple’s patent, as it won’t disable your camera unless you’re pointing it at something or someone you’re not supposed to.” However, most people are just concerned there might be a backdoor to disabling their iPhone.

Current iPhone Cameras

Your first thought should be: “if infrared is invisible, do current iPhone cameras ‘see’ infrared?” The short answer is that the rear-facing cameras on recent iPhones filter out or cut IR waves.

Unfiltered or poorly filtered digital cameras can pick up infrared waves that reflect off of the object, not necessarily capturing the infrared waves emitted by the objects like a thermal camera would. Accordingly, some photographers firmly believe that since a camera’s CCD or CMOS silicon-based sensors are sensitive to near infrared waves (700 – 1,050 nm), the resulting digital images containing infrared effects are contaminated and not as aesthetically pleasing. This is typically a result seen as some overexposure in the red channel. A 2011 Wired article discusses the filter feature as an image cleaning benefit of the images captured by the rear-facing camera in the iPhone 4s.

Apple boasts that models after the iPhone 4s include a “Hybrid IR filter” for “better color accuracy” and “more color uniformity.” Teardown site iFixit.com lists “Five-element lens, Hybrid IR filter, [and a] Sapphire crystal lens cover” as key pieces in the iPhone 6’s rear-facing 8-megapixel iSight camera. From a teardown photo of the iPhone 5s’ Sony camera shared by System Plus Consulting, the filter appears in the rear-camera housing, behind the lenses and on top of the CMOS chip.

A simple test to see if your camera cuts out IR is to point a TV remote control at the camera and observe if the light appears on the LCD. For most phones it appears that the front-facing camera does not filter out IR, but the FaceTime cameras do not appear to be relevant to this patent. Theoretically, with a software update and IR emitters in place, Apple could try to restrict “selfies” with the IR data tomorrow, but your body would likely block most of the infrared beam and the phones would only intermittently receive a transmitted disabling command.

Now, with the more important rear-facing cameras having an IR filter, there is a big issue: does the iPhone’s Hybrid IR Filter cut all wavelengths prior to capture or does the iPhone receive some of the longer wavelength IR and digitally process more IR effects out?

Here, we have to make some assumptions based on some very sound logic: Apple wants parts and production costs to be as cheap as possible. That reasoning would lead one to conclude that the filter is an inexpensive and part of the camera housing rather than multiple extra chips or a software filter relying on image processing data. Moreover, such filters are known in the industry and known to be glass or the cheaper, more malleable plastic with a chemical coating. Typically, these types of filters cut infrared as well as ultraviolet waves as UV are electromagnetic waves that, while on the other side of the ROYGBIV visible spectrum, may also contaminate images captured with a CCD or CMOS chip. Parasam believes that Apple moved from a simple thin-film IR in the iPhone 4 to a “thick-film” combination IR/UV filter in the iPhone 4S rear camera. Such filters typically have the ability to cut both UV rays below 390nm and IR rays above 700mn leaving just the visible spectrum.

So the straightforward conclusion is that in order to save costs the iPhone’s Hybrid IR filter likely blocks the problematic parts of the infrared spectrum between roughly 700 nanometers and 1050 nm. A few message board posts seem to agree, if that helps. The alternative, for example, an optical bandpass filter that selectively transmits a portion of the IR spectrum and rejects other wavelengths, would likely be a more complicated, custom solution with a correspondingly higher price tag.

Accordingly, it’s more likely than not that the current crop of iPhones cannot receive IR data via the rear-facing camera due to the Hybrid IR Filter.

Implementation of the Technology

Hopefully, after better understanding infrared and the iPhone’s camera capabilities, there is an appreciation that Apple’s infrared disabler tech cannot become a reality from an iOS update over night with the current models of iPhones. Specifically, with regard to the phones’ rear-facing cameras, there would likely need to be new cameras in a future iPhone hardware update to eliminate or substitute the current infrared cutting filter. According to the patent, such a new IR filter would likely block IR from 700 – 850 nm that is closer to the visible (red) spectrum, but allow longer wavelengths of 850 or 900 nm and above to pass through. The IR wavelength window in the future filter likely would not have to be too wide. Again, designing and implementing custom IR cutting filter, along with a UV filter, would not be inexpensive.

Secondly, the IR data transmitting devices would have to be made and installed. This, however, would not be very difficult, as infrared emitters and blasters are well-known and they could be installed in venues across the world or mounted by each touring artists or band as they come through. These could be installed right next to the visible lasers, lights, and strobes.

The difficulty for Apple would likely come with limiting the infrared signals’ duplication by competitors and/or hackers. IR signals, like your remote control, can easily be captured and repeated. If a nefarious person were to mimic the hypothetical concert’s IR signal, he could potentially disable your device outside of the event. Perhaps Apple could include some type of data validation via accessing an internet address, double-checking a GPS location, or receiving a corresponding near-field radio signal, but that would likely render the IR signal superfluous. There should be more efficient solutions to prevent photography than relying on infrared.

Especially as one would expect that third-party iPhone case makers would come to the public’s rescue if this technology were to be implemented. Such a removable case could include an IR cutting filter for use in bypassing the disable commands. For example the patent discloses that “if image processing circuitry 218 determines an absence of infrared signals with encoded data in an image, it may route the image to display 216 for displaying the image” (col. 6, ll. 63 – 66). This seems relatively shortsighted on Apple’s part, especially considering the patent fully recognizes that “in embodiments where an infrared data includes commands to temporarily disable a device function, a user may not be able to set [‘ON’ or ‘OFF’] configuration options that override the disable commands” as it would “defeat the purpose of providing disable commands through infrared data” (col. 13, ll. 8 – 14). Perhaps Apple is secretly developing better tamper protection as a temporary filter for concert-going or civilly defiant iPhone users seems almost too easy for a solution to overcome an infrared hurdle.

The next question would be Apple’s motivation for implementing the disable commands. While obviously this tech could very well help Apple with their relationships with mega musical artists looking to limit the camera phone use at concerts, the public uproar caused by the initial impression of the patent has already triggered ‘hot takes’ in social media and much worry in the consumer base. Moreover, Apple altering or removing the infrared filter might undo many of the recent smartphone photographic advancements. Relying on the phone to process the image—risking creation of artificial-looking photos—does not seem like a prudent solution that the Cupertino engineers or executives would get behind.

As for the forthcoming iPhone 7 models, the size of the camera hole appears to be a big focus in the rumors. For instance, a dual-lens camera appeared on an allegedly leaked photo of the iPhone 7 Plus. Engadget apparently found a Chinese spy-shot of the iPhone 7 with a “larger CMOS sensor.” Camera-specific upgrades, along with newly introduced features like Live Photos and 4K video via recent hardware updates, would make it ridiculous to think that Apple would sacrifice photograph image quality in order to create a disabling-by-infrared feature. Still keep an ear out as any changes to the camera will likely fly under the radar, especially if Apple formally announces removal of the headphone jack in their future phone.

If anything, one would expect Apple to improve the camera and shelve the infrared disabler. Mashable noted that “Given its history with protecting iPhone users’ freedom and privacy [from the FBI], it would be very un-Apple like of the company to implement such a tech.” BBC News quoted Stuart Miles, founder of gadget site Pocket Lint, as saying “It could harm Apple in the eyes of some people” and that “People like freedom of speech – and who is Apple to tell me I can’t record something?”

Despite the media pointing at music artists’ recent displeasure with the amateur photographers, the operational and intangible costs of implementing the patent’s technology appear to be adding up for Apple. So maybe Apple only intends to sit on this patented technology so that no one else can use it? Right. And everyone will naturally adopt courteous camera phone habits the day after that press release!

This is provided for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal or financial advice. The information expressed is subject to change at any time and should be checked for completeness, accuracy and current applicability. For advice, consult a suitably licensed patent professional.

The Author

Kevin A. Rieffel

Kevin A. Rieffel a registered patent attorney with Haley Guiliano LLP. Kevin’s focus is on patent preparation and prosecution, portfolio development, and IP licensing and litigation strategy. Kevin almost exclusively reads and contributed to blogs on IP news and policy, high school swimming, and Georgetown basketball.

For more information or to contact Kevin, please visit his Firm Profile Page.

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Discuss this

There are currently 2 Comments comments.

  1. Benny July 7, 2016 6:04 am

    I’ve noticed that Iphones use different IR filtering for front and rear cameras, whereas most Android phones do not include IR filters. (we routinely use this feature to test IR proximity sensors). Since the system is dependent on transmission of an encoded IR signal, since only iphones will respond to the signal, and since the vast majority of intelligent lifeforms I normally interact with own Android phones, I would consider the overall usefulness of this technology extremely limited.

  2. Titus Corleone July 7, 2016 4:53 pm

    This is just another sweetheart deal between large corporations. The entertainment providers clearly made an offer the Apple board couldn’t refuse. Especially so, as Apple will be screwing thier own customer base by implementing this “tech” against them… Wow, what nerve! Samsung is looking better every day… that is… if they don’t get on the gravy train themselves…