iPhone: US government urges Apple to switch on hidden FM radios inside handsets

Your iPhone might have a secret chip in it that could save your life. But it’s not switched on.

The US telecoms regulator has asked Apple to activate the FM radios that are in some of its phones so they can be used to relay messages in an emergency, like a storm, that knocks out data connections.

But Apple says that only some of its phones have the chip, and that it’s not been installing them in recent models. Neither the iPhone 7 or 8 have the right technology, “nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals, so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products”, the company said in a statement.

Apple is the only major phone company that hasn’t yet activated the chips, the FCC said. “I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria,” chairman Arjit Pai said in a statement.

Apple said that it has activated and engineered a whole range of different systems in its phones, all intended to keep their users safe. The company has “engineered modern safety solutions into our products. Users can dial emergency services and access Medical ID card information directly from the Lock Screen, and we enable government emergency notifications, ranging from Weather Advisories to AMBER alerts,” it said in a release, making clear that all the same it wouldn’t be able to comply with the FCC request.

The company has been showing off some of those security and privacy features this week, as part of the launch of a new website and the new phones.

It’s not clear whether the FCC could force Apple to turn on the chips in the phones that do have them, or to compel them to install the feature in future phones. It didn’t reply to Apple’s statement that it couldn’t actually comply with the request.

Mobile phone networks have been wiped out in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, after storms there. The FM radios allow the phones to pick up signals far more easily and over longer distances, allowing them to be used to relay information even when normal networks are down.

The FM radios will have come as part of other internal parts bought by Apple to add into its phone. As such, it’s likely that Apple never actually intended to use them, and it’s possible that they couldn’t even be turned on.


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