Stolen iPhones could eventually capture photo and fingerprint of thieves

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Image: Nate Ralph/CNET

According to a patent filed by Apple and approved on Thursday, the iPhone or iPad could eventually capture and store a fingerprint, an image, audio, and video of a thief who attempts to use the device after it is stolen.

The patent, originally reported by AppleInsider, was initially filed on April 29, 2016. The patent abstract stated that the capture of biometric data could potentially occur when certain “trigger conditions” are met. Additional metadata could be used to complement the information captured on the thief.

There are a quite a few options for what could constitute a trigger, including a certain number of failed login attempts, or even potentially using machine learning to determine when to capture the data. Parameters could also be set by the user to initiate the information capture if a certain set of actions are attempted.

The patent also notes that the process would seek to capture the abovementioned information “without making said unauthorized user aware of said capture.” The patent also said that the information may be stored in an encrypted manner remotely or locally. However, the patent also mentioned that the information would be “purged” at certain intervals to save space on the device.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy template (Tech Pro Research)

As also noted by AppleInsider, there are currently five attempts available for an individual user to access an iOS device before they are forced to input the passcode. If the user can’t get the passcode in 10 tries, the phone will lock up. So, for parents of small children, this could mean you’ll see a lot of pictures of your kid if they get ahold of your phone, but that’s where the purging comes in.

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The patent contains some troubling language as well. Take this excerpt: “For example, a captured fingerprint may be compared to a database containing fingerprints of known users (such as fingerprints of all users of a cellular service network that have been captured by the cellular service network). By way of another example, a number of captured keystrokes entered by an unauthorized user may be grouped and analyzed to determine one or more operations that the unauthorized user was attempting to perform utilizing the computing device (such as access a digital music purchasing account accessible from the computing device).”

The comparison of fingerprints, and the potential logging of keystrokes in an attempt to determine what the unauthorized user was trying to do, may pose some ethical concerns. This is especially troubling after Apple’s long battle with the FBI over the encryption on the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter.

On the flip side, the addition of the feature could help law enforcement track down and prosecute smartphone thieves. Either way, at this point it’s just a patent, and it may never make to production on the iPhone or iPad at all.

What do you think?

Would this feature be beneficial, or is it an invasion of privacy? Tell us in the comments.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A new Apple patent could mean that stolen iPhones would capture and store the fingerprint of a thief, as well as their photo and audio and video.
  2. The patent mentions specific triggers that could be used to initiate the capturing of information, with the potential for machine learning to make the call.
  3. This potential feature could raise some red flags over its potential privacy implications and the ethical concerns of using a database of fingerprints to compare users.

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