Among a bevy of patents awarded to Apple this week was one that would enable or disable certain features of a phone depending on its location. It could be useful, but it also raises serious questions about who really owns your device.
The patent, "Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device," was pointed out by Apple Insider Thursday. It's similar to an application made public in 2011 that would use a sensor in the phone to detect whether it was allowed to take pictures or make calls. The new patent relies on GPS, cell tower or Wi-Fi data to determine location, and then "changing one or more functional or operational aspects" of the device.
The suggestions for use are innocuous and practical: a movie theater that automatically sets phones to silent; a classroom that prevents outgoing calls; turning off Wi-Fi in a hospital. But it's not hard to imagine abuses of the system as well: it could be a useful tool for any oppressive regime, for instance, or be used to force the shutdown of phones at a protest — something that happened last year in San Francisco.
There's nothing in the patent that indicates it is going to be implemented, though iPhones and other smartphones do already have the ability to adjust things like ring volume and Wi-Fi settings depending on location. The difference this patent describes would be that it's not the user making the changes, but whoever sets "policies" in the area.
You can read the patent in its entirety at the Patent Office's website. Apple was also awarded numerous other patents this week, from mobile payment systems to email interfaces, thought only a few are actually in use.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.