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Source: CBS News

Posted on August 30, 2010

As consumers flock to do everything they can with their smartphones - being egged on retailers who smell a better way to get people to buy from them - the biggest threat to rapid adoption are privacy fears. Aware of those fears, major retailers are going out of their way to stress that they respect privacy. Best Buy, for example, recently launched a mobile check-in app by stressing how it doesn't undermine privacy instead of touting its consumer benefits.

But Apple Computer last week may have set that movement wayback, when a Patent application for some iPhone capabilities was made public. Its filing was the stuff of nightmares for every privacy advocate. That federal filing spoke of, among other things, the iPhone's ability to use a consumer's heart rhythms to not only confirm that person's identity but analyze vibrations to determine the kind of transportation that person is likely using.

The official stated purpose of patent application 20100207721 is to identify unauthorized iPhone users. But the analytics described here could easily be used for so many other purposes.

As for the heartbeat, the application reports that the "heartbeat sensor detects the heartbeat of the current user and compares the detected heartbeat with heart signatures of each authorized user. Each person [has] a unique heartbeat. By analyzing the ratio between the high and low peaks measured in an electrocardiogram of a user's heart, a unique heartbeat signature that is distinctive to each user can be identified."

Even better is this beauty, which is a delicious accompaniment to a boring old satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) location: "An accelerometer can be utilized to determine the mode of transportation of the electronic device. For example, the mode of transportation can be determined by utilizing a signal processing system to identify the 'vibration profile' of any movement experienced by the electronic device," the application said. "The vibration profile can be analyzed to determine whether it matches the vibration profile for movement types such as, for example, walking, running, riding on a train, riding in a car, flying in a plane or riding on a bike."

The application also discusses other biometric techniques, such as using the phone's microphone to grab and compare voiceprints or using the camera to compare a face to the one on file.

Better yet, it discusses using that camera to, on its own, shoot a large number of images to try and plot topography. "The camera is operable to take a plurality of photographs of the surroundings of the electronic device and the processor is further operable to analyze each of the plurality of photographs to identify distinguishing landmarks in the photographs and determine the location of each photograph based on the identified distinguishing landmarks," the application says.

More on those pictures: "The photographs can be analyzed to detect distinguishing landmarks such as mountain ranges, constellations, street signs, stores or any other suitable landmark. This technique can be beneficial in the event that, for example, alternate systems for determining the electronic device's location (e.g., a GPS system) are not available or cease functioning correctly."

And here's a passage that's sure to capture the attention of privacy advocates everywhere: "The photograph can be taken without a flash, any noise or any indication that a picture is being taken to prevent the current user from knowing he is being photographed. As another example, a recording can be taken to capture the current user's voice through, for example, the microphone. The recording can be taken when the current user makes a phone call with the electronic device. In some embodiments, the electronic device can record any voices or sounds that are detected, regardless of whether or not a phone call is being made."

This is not the first time that Apple has gotten creative with Patent applications, including one made public in April that spoke of using the iPhone to purchase a concert ticket and to then become that ticket, download a recording of the concert as it's done and then locating people on a friends list at the concert.

It's common for companies to write up their most futuristic technology fantasies and to try and patent them. After all, in five years, if they ever want to really do it, they'll be glad they did. A Patent application certainly does not mean that the company will ever actually deploy it, even if a Patent is eventually granted.

But if Apple ever does try this, some hope that the technology will work much more poorly in the real world than on paper. Devices as complex as the iPhone often act in unexpected ways. That phone, for example, was recently found to quietly store passwords, credit card numbers and literally everything typed into it-for as long as six months.

One can only hope that these intrusive features won't work.

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