What If Cameras Stopped Telling the Truth?

New technology to block photography at concerts hints at an alarming future for smartphones.

A fan records a performance by The Weeknd at the 2015 Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival. (Scott Roth / Invision / AP)

Even in the Photoshop age, photos and videos can win the public’s trust in a way that a story or an eyewitness account can’t. More than 500 people have been shot and killed by police so far this year, but it’s those whose final encounters with police were caught on tape—and occasionally their photographers—who go on to occupy national headlines. As my colleague Rob points out, for Americans whose experiences with police are generally characterized by respect and civility, there’s something fundamentally unsettling to seeing, with their own eyes, an officer commit an extraordinary act of violence.

Cheap smartphones with cameras have brought the power take documentary evidence to just about anyone, and the credibility of phone-shot video has held up in court and in the news. But a patent awarded to Apple last month hints at a future where invisible signals could alter the images that smartphone cameras capture—or even disable smartphone cameras entirely.

Apple filed for the patent in 2011, proposing a smartphone camera that could respond to data streams encoded in invisible infrared signals. The signals could display additional information on the phone’s screen: If a user points his or her camera at a museum exhibit, for example, a transmitter placed nearby could tell the phone to show information about the object in the viewfinder.

A different type of data stream, however, could prevent the phone from recording at all. Apple’s patent also proposes using infrared rays to force iPhone cameras to shut off at concerts, where video, photo, and audio recording is often prohibited. Yes, smartphones are the scourge of the modern concert, but using remote camera-blocking technology to curb their use opens up a dangerous potential for abuse.

The next few iPhones will almost certainly not have this technology, and it’s likely that it’ll never show up in a mass-produced smartphone at all. Apple files for and is granted hundreds of patents that it doesn’t end up using. But the fact that camera-blocking proposals are coming from a hugely influential tech company—which also happens to be the leading camera manufacturer in the world, according to data from Flickr—might not bode well for the direction camera technology will go in 10 or 15 years.

What happens if someone else can use technology to enforce limits on how you use your smartphone camera, or to alter the images that you capture without your consent? In public spaces in the U.S., that would be illegal: Courts have generally ruled that the First Amendment protects people’s right to take pictures when they’re in a public area like a park, plaza, or street. There are a few caveats—citizens have been challenged when filming police, for example—but generally, photography in outdoor public spaces is completely protected.

Private spaces are a different story entirely. An individual or company can set rules and expectations for visitors onto their property, and they can ask people who don’t follow the rules to leave. A bouncer can kick audience members out if they’re caught filming or taking photos in a concert where cameras aren’t allowed. A technological solution that shuts down smartphone cameras in these spaces would be permissible—and in fact, it’s been done before, albeit in a clunkier way. A system called Yondr locks away concertgoers’ phones in soft pouches throughout a show, and has already been deployed at big-ticket concerts (Alicia Keys, the Lumineers) and standup gigs (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Louis CK).

But just because a company can restrict customers’ rights in exchange for a service doesn’t mean it should. When I asked Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, about the idea behind Apple’s patent, she said it reminded her of the way social media companies like Facebook and Twitter set boundaries for their users.

“They as private entities have the right to set the terms of service and the rules of use for their websites and platforms,” Rowland said. “But as more and more of our methods of communication are controlled by private companies, there is a potential loss of civil rights and civil liberties when people lack a constitutional check on the access that the companies provide.”

If a company or organization is going to limit speech lawfully—a social network that bans hate speech, for example, or a concert venue that forbids photography—it should at least solicit “meaningful informed consent” from their patrons, Rowland says.

In a world with informed consent, Facebook users would explicitly be told about limits on what they post on the social network before they sign up for an account, and concertgoers would know before buying tickets what they can and can’t do with their phones—and how any restrictions will be enforced.

Fans that slip their phone into a Yondr case, for example, know exactly what they’re getting into, and are actively consenting to giving up Snapchat for two hours in exchange for a Lumineers show. But it’s less likely that every person who files through a venue’s door would be given the chance to individually consent to use of a technology that remotely shuts down a key feature of their smartphones.

For it to be reliable, camera-blocking technology would have to be hard to circumvent. If the technology relied on a GPS signal to determine whether a device is in a no-recoding zone, the user could turn off the GPS radio on his or her phone to get around the restriction. An infrared signal, however, would be nearly impossible to avoid, since the very same sensor that would receive the signal—your camera—is the sensor you’d need to use to take a photo.

And if a crisis were to arise in the venue, having a working smartphone camera could be essential. In the Bataclan concert hall in Paris last year, a shaky video helped the world piece together what happened when three gunmen stormed in during a show, began firing into the crowd, and took a group of survivors hostage for hours. Without a way to override a technological ban on recording, an emergency situation could end up going undocumented.

This is perhaps the most extreme thought experiment that considers a future where Apple’s patent sees the light of day. There’s a less nefarious-seeming outcome than a technology that outright shuts down your camera, though, and given recent developments, it’s starting to look a little more realistic.

Last month, Amazon offered its Prime customers big discounts on a pair of Android smartphones—but the offer came with a catch. In exchange for the price drop, users of the cut-rate Androids would occasionally see ads on their lockscreens, that holiest of digital real estate. The phones also would come loaded up with Amazon software.

Is that a worthwhile trade-off? The Amazon offer is really just an extension of the business model that’s already at the core of the internet economy: People are willing to be marketed to in order to get free or cheap things. (Think Facebook.) But what if, instead of ads on the lockscreen, a cheap or free smartphone would paste ads onto your photos? Perhaps you could hide camera ads for 30 minutes by watching a short video, or tweeting about a product. Maybe the ads would disappear if your photo included an approved item, like a particular brand of watch or a bottle of hand lotion. The technology to do this certainly exists. But would it violate free-speech rights?

Rowland says she worries that cheap products that limit the usefulness of an essential feature could lead to a two-tier system, where people who can pay get to experience their technology and the internet without obstacles, and those who can’t have to jump through hoops or click through ads to get to what they’re looking for. (I’ve written before about the dangers of turning digital privacy into a luxury good.)

“Access to the digital world should not be burdened with quid-pro-quos, caveats, and attempts to get discounts if you sell your privacy,” Rowland said. “There is something holy about our ability to access the internet. It is a utility—perhaps the most important modern utility for many people in terms of connecting with people and finding jobs and nearly limitless other daily life activities.”

There was one line in Apple’s patent application that particularly caught my eye. It came right after a brief description of how cameras work, which noted that they generally only capture images of visible light, but don’t receive any communication through visible or invisible light. “Accordingly,” the patent reads, “the functionality of cameras in traditional electronic devices is limited.”

The idea that cameras are “limited” because they can’t decode infrared signals and shut themselves off at someone else’s request seems to me like a manifestation of Silicon Valley’s disrupt-everything mindset. Cameras are broken because they still do what they’ve been doing for over a century, only in higher quality, the thinking appears to go. It may be that the smartphone camera—an absolutely vital social and political tool—is not immune to market forces that threaten to transform it for the worse.