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Candid camera.

Apple is imaginging a future where iPhones can track and identify their thieves

Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

In Apple’s vision of the future, an iPhone can catch its own thief.

According to a patent application filed Aug. 25, the iPhone maker is exploring the possibility of designing devices that covertly capture the fingerprints, photos, videos, and audio of unauthorized users.

The proposed technology would use the biometric sensor on a smartphone or tablet to obtain a person’s fingerprints when instructed to do so from another device associated with its owner. The information, along with timestamps and location data, would then be uploaded to the cloud, where the owner can access it. The collected data would be purged after a certain period of time.

The capabilities detailed in the patent application hark back to Apple’s Find My iPhone app. ”Some or all of this data (about the iPhone’s owner) to a certain degree is already being captured locally on the device and then in iCloud,” identity theft expert Robert Siciliano tells Quartz in an email. “It’s simply the direction we have been and will continue to head in.”

While Apple believes that surveilling from behind the scenes will help owners recover lost or stolen devices, there are some obvious limitations to the technology. Most people have no idea what to do with a copy of someone’s fingerprints. That is, instead, the domain of law enforcement, which has databases it can run prints against. But as Apple showed at its recent showdown with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, handing over user data is a very dicey issue.

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