Apple’s Anti-Tampering Patent: Could It Make Mobile Payments Safe?

Written by Frank Hayes
February 10th, 2011

One of the biggest risks of mobile payments is the possibility that a smartphone has been tampered with, either physically or with malware, in ways that put payment accounts at risk by thieves. But a patent issued to Apple on February 1 suggests that the Cupertino crowd may have plans for detecting iPhone and iPad tampering in near real time—and even shutting down phones that have been tampered with.

Apple’s patent application makes clear it’s mainly aimed at iPhone abuse that would void the phone’s warranty. But it’s just as clear that the abuse-detection system could go much further than that. If Apple decides to use it to bolster the security of the iPhone and iPad for mobile payments, that could make the iPad much more secure for retailers as an in-store payments device used by employees—and make the iPhone a much safer way for customers to make mobile payments.

The patent, #7,880,591, is for a system for “detecting whether consumer abuse has occurred in an electronic device.” Put simply, Apple’s design works like this: A set of sensors identifies potential abuse from liquid immersion, extreme heat, physical shock or tampering. Any “abuse event” is logged in special tamper-proof memory, and the device is shut down—but it periodically wakes up to check whether the abuse is still going on.

If the device is still wet or hot or otherwise being abused, the device goes back to sleep. If the abuse has ended, the device runs a self-test and either flashes the iPhone equivalent of a “check engine” light or returns to normal operation. But the log of the abuse event remains, encrypted and password-protected. So if the device is returned to the manufacturer for service, a technician can identify any “abuse events” and whether that abuse could have caused the problem that needs repair.

In itself, this is a clever diagnostic system. And it should help Apple keep the warranty replacement costs down on future iPhones and iPads. (The patent specifically mentions its usefulness as a “countermeasure against crafty consumers,” who want to file a false warranty claim when they’ve abused their devices.)

For retailers’ IT departments, that’s a potential pain. Employees rarely admit they do anything to IT equipment other than use it properly. A company-issued iPhone or iPad has never been dropped in a toilet, roasted on a hot car dashboard or bounced down a flight of steps. If Apple installs an abuse-detection system in future i-devices, a lot more warranty claims from IT departments could be rejected—and service contracts might start looking like a necessary expense.

But there’s a much stronger reason this patent is interesting for retailers. Apple wants to be a player in mobile payments, and retailers want to use Apple devices for in-store payments. If Apple pushes the patent’s ideas just a little further—periodically checking for both physical abuse and malware—that could help maintain the integrity of an iPhone or iPad as a payment device in two obvious ways.

The first is hardening the iPhone and iPad for use as in-store payment devices.


Comments are closed.


StorefrontBacktalk delivers the latest retail technology news & analysis. Join more than 60,000 retail IT leaders who subscribe to our free weekly email. Sign up today!

Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

Our apologies. Due to legal and security copyright issues, we can't facilitate the printing of Premium Content. If you absolutely need a hard copy, please contact customer service.