At the end of June 2016, apple won approval from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a patent (originally filed in 2011) covering a technology to use infrared signals to send encoded data to cell phones via their cameras.

Apple has announced no plans to deploy this technology in iPhones, nor what use they might put it to if they did, but news reports quickly seized on the idea that it could (and would) be used to prevent the taking of photographs and videos at live performances:

The new software, which hasn’t been officially introduced by Apple, would reportedly allow venues to use an infrared beam to disable a mobile phone’s camera, preventing users from taking videos and photos. The development comes as musicians and actors regularly complain about the growing use of mobile phones and selfie sticks at live performances, which allow fans to immediately share content on social media for the millions of people who didn’t actually pay for tickets.

Artists like Adele, Jack White and Zooey Deschanel have publicly expressed frustration with the throng of phones at concerts. Meanwhile, actor Benedict Cumberbatch broke character during a performance of “Hamlet” to tell audience members in London to stop recording him with their phones.

“It’s mortifying and there is nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor on stage experiencing that,” the actor said.

But as others noted, the technology has a wealth of potential applications, everything from providing visitors with information about museum pieces to displaying advertisements to aiding firemen:

Whether it’s to distribute ads as you walk by a store, or to display a 3D blueprint of a burning building in a heads-up display worn by a firefighter, big tech companies like Apple are exploring multiple options to more tightly integrate their devices and services with the physical world.

The patent showed two possible applications. The first is an infrared emitter placed near an object in a museum (Apple’s example is an Aztec Water Jug). If you point the phone camera at the object, it receives an infrared signal instructing the cell phone to give the user additional information about the jug.

jug

It is true the technology could potentially be used to disable cell phone cameras at live performances, but it could also be used to supplement that activity or turn it into a form of partnership that benefits both the audience and the performer:

Apple’s patent, which illustrates how an iPhone would become temporarily disabled during a rock concert, would require an infrared transmitter to be installed at shows.

When switched on, the patent says, the phone would simply display a “recording disabled” message when audience members attempt to take photographs or videos. Alternatively, a watermark or blur effect may be applied, to discourage people from sharing them.

disable

For performers, this technology (if it ever gets developed) could deliver dual benefits, but not without cost. Artists could establish camera-free zones at their performances — and potentially incur the ire of fans who resent the curb on their liberties. Alternatively, they could go the opposite route and encourage fans to use their cameras and, as a result, receive, say a discount for merchandise. Artists also could potentially watermark photos taken at the concert.

Another possible application for the technology, one feared by civil libertarians, is that could be used by government and law enforcement to prevent citizens documenting mistreatment and oppression — although that may not be an authorized use:

“On the one hand you can imagine the ability to create a perimeter that can disable a paparazzi zone of influence,” David Wendell Phillips, said. “On the other hand, do you have the right to control that within a public area? Does that conflict with the right to film? As a private citizen, I have a right to video the police in a public setting. Does a police officer have the right to restrict my ability to film him?”

As these dicey questions of civil liberties arise, Apple is unlikely to commercialize its camera-blocking patent, said [digital music consultant Jon] Maples.

“We all saw how ferociously they went after the government for unlocking an iPhone,” he said. “I can’t imagine them now releasing a technology that would block your phone. That really goes against the grain of what Apple stands for. Apple has always been about making technology as easy as simple to use as possible, especially with hardware. They just wouldn’t just disable you from the machine that you bought from them.”

Ordinary cameras (and portable cameras not manufactured or licensed by Apple) would not be affected by this particular blocking technology.