It may be a long shot, but technically your AirPods can give away your secrets and pose a (very minor) security risk. That’s thanks to the Siri integration that reads out text messages, calendars appointments and other notifications into the ears of the wearer.
Granted, a spy would have to both wear your AirPods without being noticed and stay within wireless range of the iPhone, so it’s not exactly practical for secret service agents in the field. But on a more mundane level you could imagine someone borrowing their partner’s AirPods only to inadvertently find out the details of their birthday present or something.
Well, it looks like Apple is tackling this mild threat head on, and in quite a creative way. According to a patent application uncovered by Patently Apple, future AirPods could identify the wearer in one of two ways, and thus avoid putting its virtual foot in it.
The first is using ultrasonic signals to examine the shape of the ear canal, and make sure they’re in familiar territory. “Various characteristics of the user’s ear provide an echo of the ultrasonic signal which is unique to the user,” the patent reads. “Variations in the surface of the user’s ear canal may cause the ultrasonic signal to reflect off the surface and generate an echo having a signature that is associated with the user.”
Personally I think the idea of Apple knowing more about the shape of my ear than both me and my doctor combined is a touch creepy, but the company has a less invasive option which also has the advantage of utilising existing sensors on the iPhone or Apple Watch. Such devices could use the style of your walk to identify you.
“The gait information may include, for example, information regarding a user’s walking and/or running characteristics, such as characteristics related to steps, pace, stride, and the like,” the patent says.
Whichever approach the theoretical AirPods take, the result would be the same: if your earphones don’t think you’re the one wearing them, they won’t pass on any sensitive information.
It may be a small problem in the greater scheme of things, but it is quite an elegant solution. If any private detectives reading this have been using borrowed AirPods as their main attack vector, it may be time to research some new investigation techniques…