This January, Apple was awarded a patent that would allow their phones to track movements and locations even while the phone is off, putting it in a “zombie mode” of sorts. The ability for Apple to track phones even when they’re turned off raises some privacy concerns, but Apple is confident that the feature will actually make phones more, rather than less, secure.
Some consumers have sang the praises of Apple’s Find My iPhone service after it helped them recover a lost phone; in fact, one can find many success stories from the past few years of a lost phone being found again thanks to Apple’s tracking ability. But there have also been many who have been unable to take advantage of Apple’s Find My iPhone service, simply because their phone was turned off or ran out of battery after they lost it.
With this potentially upcoming “zombie mode,” Apple phone owners can be assured that they can utilize Find My iPhone regardless of their phone’s on/off state. This mode is also a preventative measure against thieves, who can simply turn off a phone they recently stole to avoid Apple and the rightful owner tracking its location.
Mobile phone giants like Apple and Samsung are increasing their efforts to take action against stolen phones, most recently via a “kill switch” that allows phones to be locked remotely, effectively nullifying the value of a stolen phone for any thief, since they are unable to access any of its features. Microsoft is expected to release an update involving a similar kill switch feature into their Windows-based phones sometime later this year.
In regard to Apple’s recently acquired “zombie mode” patent, the details include asking users to enter their security code while powering down the phone. If the code is entered incorrectly, the phone will enter a mode where it appears to be turned off, while in actuality it is running location services in the background. This mode even conserves battery by turning on at various intervals and transmitting its location before turning off again for a period of time.
The patent, which was filed in April 2014, goes beyond these fairly expected features by also delving into criminal identification; the patent involves a feature that would take photos of the person that has stolen it, provided the phone is reported stolen by the original owner. Another feature involves using a QR code to unlock the phone.
While it’s a fool’s errand to read too much into Apple’s patents—the company files many patents all throughout the year—it’s an effective way to peek into what the company may be rolling out next with future updates or product redesigns. Phone security has been an often talked-about topic recently, especially since the 2014 celebrity photo hack involving iCloud, so it’s no surprise that the largest phone manufacturers are taking privacy seriously in 2015. In addition to features like zombie mode, one can expect new security features to be emphasized for many new phone models this year and beyond.
While the prospect of Apple tracking your phone when it’s off may seem counteractive to privacy, the ability for both Apple and you—the consumer—to track a phone even when it’s off makes it less likely a thief will attempt to steal your phone. A Reuters report found that phone thefts dropped 40% in San Francisco and 25% in New York, encouraging numbers that are undoubtedly influenced by phone manufacturers taking privacy and post-theft maneuvers more seriously.
And while it might feel, for some of you, like beating a dead horse, I’ll remind you again that Apple is on a very short list of tech companies that I can trust with my privacy. I don’t say this lightly. The fact is that Apple’s Tim Cook has been extremely forthcoming—and extremely reassuring—about Apple’s commitment to customer privacy.
In other words, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a Superfish-type debacle coming out of Cupertino. While Apple has had some security hiccups recently—not the least of which was the now-infamous celebrity photo leak—we don’t yet have any indication that Apple is using our personal information in any deliberately underhanded ways. If you’re looking for a reason to justify brand loyalty, I can’t think of a better one.