Will Your Next iPhone Do Security Differently?

Apple CEO Tim Cook shows off the new iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch during an Apple special event
Source: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

If Apple’s recently granted patents are any indication, future iOS devices could be equipped with features like security settings that shift based on the user’s location, brightness controls that adapt to ambient light, and the ability to send anonymized data that would enable the mapping of network dead spots.

Patent number 8,884,939, which was first spotted by Apple Insider, is titled “Display brightness control based on ambient light levels” and describes methods of controlling the brightness of a display based on ambient light conditions. While Apple’s mobile devices and laptops have traditionally used such a system, the patent seems to indicate that Apple is looking to improve the existing system.

According to the patent, devices could include ambient light sensors that detect conditions like the ambient light level, and a display controller that adjusts the brightness of the display backlight based on the detected conditions. The controller could set the brightness based on one or more “adjustment profiles” for different ambient light conditions, and the user could set preferences for a brightness level inside, and a different level for outside, for example.

The brightness level could also be adjusted based on the angle of the ambient light source, which the ambient light sensor could detect. The controller could then use both the detected angle of the light source and the level of ambient light to determine the appropriate brightness level. So the display backlight could be brightened when the device is facing the sun, but dimmed when facing away.

Patent number 8,886,217, also granted on November 11, is called “Location-sensitive security levels and setting profiles based on detected location.” Under the system described in the patent, the security level and security-related behavior of a device could be modified based on the location of the device.

The method would implement a baseline security level on the mobile device, and see the device detecting “a plurality of location aspects” to determine the context of the mobile device’s location. The system would use cues like geographic location information, proximity to a particular device, detection of a specific network, or detection of an access point associated with a particular network. Using multiple location aspects, the system would be able to identify a location context with a threshold level of confidence, determining, for example, that the user is at home by the device’s connection to the home network and by its detection of a recognized computer on that network.

Different location contexts would be associated with different modified levels of security. Security levels could enable increased or decreased security requirements, so that when the device is in a location that the user deems “safe,” like the home or office, it could require less stringent security. Conversely, when the device is in a location that’s considered “unsecure,” it would implement stronger security protections.

The modifications that the system would make to security levels could see a device alternately easing or increasing user authentication requirements at specific locations, based on the likelihood of a security risk at the given location.

For example, when location-based security is implemented, a user might not have to enter a passcode to unlock the device when it detects that it’s at home. At the office, the device could require a simple passcode at a location associated with the user’s desk, but require a more complex alphanumeric passcode when it detects that it’s in the cafeteria or a conference room.

The patent explains that location-based security would lead to a better, more secure user experience, both because it would enable the device to implement security protections that are appropriate to various location contexts, but also because it would keep users from choosing weak and insecure passcodes simply because they need to input them so often. As the patent explains:

A security system that has one security level implemented regardless of location may be less secure. Some locations may be more secure and other locations less secure resulting in overzealous security measures or insufficient security measures. Frequent authentication requests may cause a user to choose a weak and unsecure passcode (e.g., 1-2-3-4). Moreover, a security system that has one security level implemented regardless of location may harm the user experience. For example, the user may be frustrated by being repeatedly prompted for passwords/passcodes when the user finds it unnecessary or burdensome. Certain embodiments of the present invention may assist in balancing the need for security and the user experience by enabling the device to request authentication that is tailored to the likelihood of a security risk.

Another recent patent, number 8,886,178, for a “Location-based profile,” describes a location determination system that would enable cellular carriers and device manufacturers to detect and keep track of network dead zones. The diagnostics tool, which would run as an app or as a background task, would inform systems of areas where calls are interrupted or where data transfers fail.

The tool would use geofencing with known cell tower locations helping the device determine where it is. When the device loses connectivity, it records its last-known cell tower to enable the system to determine where the dead zones are in the network. Crowdsourced, anonymized data would help carriers to figure out where multiple users lose connectivity, with more accuracy than they’ve been able to obtain in the past. Users are also able to access the data that they contribute through the system, and remove their data if they find that the problem is resolved.

While the appearance of new systems and technology in an Apple patent is never a guarantee that the idea will show up in a future Apple product, it’s not difficult to imagine how the technology revealed in these patents could improve future iPhones — especially the location-based security system, which would make the phone’s security settings much smarter and much more customizable to users’ needs.

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